Yesterday I shared the first part of an interview with Paul Washer. I asked him about the people and the books that have most influenced him, about “The Shocking Youth Message,” about his experience as a missionary in Peru, about family worship and about humility. Today, I begin the final part of the interview by asking what encourages him and what concerns him about the New Calvinism.
You are often associated with what has become known as New Calvinism. What are some things you see that encourage you and concern you as you look at this movement?
This is a hard question to answer because there are so many definitions of “New Calvinism.” Some use it as a title of honor and others as a derogatory remark. For this reason, all such titles are misleading if not outright dangerous. In the last decade, there have been many young men and women who have embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. If we are speaking of these, then I do see some encouraging signs and some concerning ones. I’ll begin with those that are encouraging.
First of all, this generation’s renewed interest in the great doctrines of the Scriptures that were clearly set forth in the Reformation is encouraging. Evangelicalism has suffered a great deal because of its abandonment or neglect of biblical truth in favor of pragmatism. Christianity is a “truth” religion. When its truth becomes undefined, Christianity becomes vague and powerless. Even worse, it quickly becomes syncretistic and absorbed with worldly culture. The return of some of today’s evangelicals to a proper definition of truth is heartening. Secondly, this generation’s rediscovery of the FiveSolae of the Reformation — Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Soli Deo Gloria — is encouraging. These doctrines are non-negotiable essentials to a biblical Christianity, a sound foundation that has often resulted in reformation and revival among the people of God. Thirdly, this generation’s recognition of the importance of church history is encouraging. The belief in “sola scriptura” does not negate the necessity of comparing our interpretation of Scripture to that of the great confessions of the Church and the countless godly believers that have gone before us. This is one of the most effective means of detecting how much of our own culture has crept into our interpretation. Fourthly and finally, this generation’s rediscovery of the great theologians and preachers of the past is encouraging. We must admit that the superficiality, lack of discipline, and hunger for entertainment and ease which abounds in our culture is not an incubator for great thinkers with deep spiritual experience. When we read the works of the great saints of history, we are able to draw from a well deeper than our own, to recognize how far we have fallen, and to set our sight on a ground higher than that which our own time would demand or even expect.
While I see much that is encouraging, I also see much that troubles me. In many ways, a movement will pass through the same errors and dangers of any one of the individuals who are a part of it.
My first concern is the tendency toward extremes. When a young man begins to take seriously the importance of doctrine, he can be led astray by extremes and by overemphasizing one doctrine to the demise of another. Possessing a correct interpretation of each individual doctrine is not sufficient; we must also learn to hold each doctrine in harmony with the others.
My second concern is the tendency to deny or eliminate mystery from the person and works of God. We must remember that the heresies regarding the Trinity (for example) came from two distinct fountains — from those who sought to deny it and from those who sought to explain it. A young man can easily fall into the great danger of giving his own inferences the same weight or authority as Scripture. In doing so, he creates a theological construct with more inference than truth. Our pride would rather eliminate mystery from God and boast of its accomplishment than acknowledge mystery and humbly worship the One whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are unfathomable.
My third concern is an empty intellectualism. This occurs when the mental comprehension of a doctrine becomes the final goal rather than the means to a greater goal — the application of that doctrine in our own lives to the glory of God and the benefit of God’s people. When a young man begins to teach things and boast of things that have yet to become a reality in his life, he can become blind to how little he understands the truth he explains and how meagerly he lives what he supposedly knows.
My fourth concern is a theological tediousness that trumps love. If we are growing in the truth and advancing in Christianity beyond our contemporaries (Galatians 1:14), we must ask ourselves, “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (I Corinthians 4:7).Our growth in truth ought to lead to our growth in humility and mercy toward others, especially toward those who believe. When a young theologian snickers at a sign that says, “God loves you!” simply because he knows that the one who wrote it does not understand the full complexity of the statement he has written, something is terribly wrong. Jesus said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
My fifth concern is the willingness of this younger generation of reformers to embrace the great doctrines of the Reformation while being unwilling to let go of the unbiblical models of ministry and church life that are ingrained in modern evangelical life. We must realize that much of what is wrong with current evangelical practices has to do with a departure from the biblical theology that was set forth in the Reformation. If we truly grasp these doctrines, especially Sola Scriptura, then it demands that we conform our organizational structures and methodologies of ministry to the Scriptures, not the other way around.
My sixth concern is the comprehension of Reformation and Puritan theology without the practice of their piety and devotion to God. The Reformers were men who knew God and walked with God. Their prayer closets were just as familiar to them as their libraries. They longed to be conformed to the image of Christ. They were by no means perfect men, but they painstakingly sought to conform every aspect of their lives to the dictates of Scripture. The transformation in their theology produced a transformation in their doxology and praxis. The lifestyle of at least some young reformers borderlines on an antinomianism that flaunts its supposed freedoms and shuns rigorous piety as little more than bondage to the Law.
My seventh and last concern has to do with the attempt of many young reformers to appear contemporary, hip, cool or even avant-garde. This flirtatious relationship with culture is dangerous, and it makes it very difficult for the world to take the minister or his message seriously.
Why did you choose to write a series of books on “Recovering the Gospel?” Who should read these books, and what do you hope these books will accomplish?
First of all, I chose to write on the Gospel because it is the one controlling passion of my life. In fact, I could preach the same message of the atoning death of Christ every time I step foot in a pulpit and not grow tired of the theme. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church and the greatest revelation of the glory of God. Secondly, there is a real sense in which the Gospel has been lost in the evangelical church. This statement might seem exaggerated to some, but this losing of the Gospel has occurred throughout history, and all the indications point to the fact that it has happened again in our generation. When we compare the Gospel that is primarily preached today to that which was preached by the Reformers, the Puritans, Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones, we see a great contrast. It becomes evident that we have reduced the Gospel to little more than a few spiritual principles or an empty creedal statement. This demonstrates the importance of doing our theology in the context of church history. The great confessions and creeds of the church, as well as some of her most devout preachers and theologians, can help us understand how far we have strayed. Many dear and genuine Christians have told me that they discovered truths in the books I have written that they had never heard before. They are often shocked when I tell them that these truths would have been common knowledge to anyone who sat under evangelical preaching in the past. Thirdly, I wrote this series on the Gospel because I wanted to set forth its great truths in the language of the man in the pew and with copious references to Scripture. The great truths of Christianity do not belong to the professional theologians alone, but to every person who calls upon the name of Christ.
In The Gospel’s Power and Message you say, “Those who believe and show their faith by their public identification with Christ through baptism will be saved.” I am sure you would affirm that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. On that basis, could you clarify what seems to say that baptism is a requirement for salvation?
This is an interesting and helpful question. I unequivocally and adamantly affirm the doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide — salvation by grace alone through faith alone. I agree wholeheartedly with the 1689 London Confession, which states, “Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be to the person who is baptized — a sign of his fellowship with Christ in His death and resurrection…” (Article 28).
Having affirmed this truth, we can now look at some other points of interest. The language that I used in the above statement is biblical. In Acts 2:38, Peter declared, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” Similar phraseology can also be found in Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, and I Peter 3:21. We should never be afraid of using biblical language. This relationship between salvation and some external action (like baptism) can also be seen in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart… you will be saved.” Is this text teaching that something more than faith is required for a person to be saved? Is salvation by faith alone, or by faith and confession, or by faith and baptism? In our noble efforts to protect and defend the doctrines of sola fide, we may be guilty of denying another important truth — the faith that results in salvation will also result in identification with and confession of Christ, even when it is perilous to do so.
In the West, identification with Christ through public baptism and vocal confession has lost much of its New Testament meaning. As a result of having passed through several generations in which Christianity was not persecuted, baptism has become a delightful occasion affirmed by family and friends; even unbelieving family members may attend to join in the celebration. However, in the New Testament and in many parts of the world today, baptism is the most difficult decision a person may ever make. It is that great moment when he publically identifies with Christ and forms a break with family, friends, and culture. Because of this decision, he will lose his job; become an outcast from society; and perhaps even be hunted, imprisoned, and martyred. In this case, his baptism was the proof of his faith and his salvation. Only those who are truly regenerated will identify with Christ at such a cost. This is the reason why both baptism and public confession of Christ are so closely related to faith and salvation in the New Testament.
You mentioned in one of your sermons that you have “more metal in your body than a Tonka truck.” At the same time there are some rumors that you are unwell. Are you able to address your health?
I was born with a genetic malformation, and yes, I do have a lot of metal in me. My boys call me “robo-preacher.” I have had a total hip replacement in both hips, my left wrist has been broken three times, has been operated on twice, and is held together with a special pin. My left knee has been operated on three times, and I have had herniated disks and bone spurs in my neck. Before my hip surgeries, I suffered almost constant pain. It made it very difficult to concentrate, sleep, and trek up the Andes Mountains. The difficulty with chronic pain like that is not just the actual pain, but the weakness and overall nausea that comes with it.
Until two years ago this last April, I was steadily declining. The pain was growing worse, and insomnia was taking its toll. I would often sleep on the floor in the living room because I moved so much in the night that my wife could hardly sleep. Then one morning, I woke up with a start, as though someone had shaken me or slammed a door. I jumped to my feet and in an instant felt that much of my pain was gone. I told my wife that it seemed like the Lord had given me a good day. I thoroughly expected the pain to return, but the next day, I felt even stronger. A few days later, I was walking in the yard, and my son Ian threw a Frisbee in my direction. Without thinking, I jumped and caught it (my definition of “jumped”: my heels were no longer touching the ground). When I turned around to throw the Frisbee back to Ian, he exclaimed, “Dad, did you see what you just did?”
Afterwards, I went into my room and prayed. I told the Lord that if the pain were necessary for my sanctification and protection, I would gladly have Him return it to me. But until then, I would be a good steward of what He had done for me. With renewed hope, I changed my diet and began to exercise with my boys. Two years have now passed, and I continue to improve. Last year in Atlanta, I challenged Voddie Baucham to three rounds in the cage. I think I could have taken him because he was laughing so hard that he could not have possibly defended himself.
There are two lessons that can be gleaned from all this. First, I did have serious physical problems, but I believe that I compounded them over the years by worry, stress, and overwork. All of these are symptoms of unbelief and/or pride. The Christian ministry is difficult, and we must not be lazy or trite. However, we often place burdens upon ourselves and make demands upon ourselves that are not according to the will of God. The more I know God and understand His perfect work on my behalf, the more I am able to rest. Secondly, I would not trade the difficult years for all the prosperity in the world. God knows what each one of us must suffer in order to be conformed to the image of Christ.
I know that many Christians love to pray for you. What are some specific ways that these people can pray for you, your family, and your ministry?
I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the prayers of God’s people. The prayers of others are the means through which God strengthens His ministers. I most covet prayer with regard to conformity to Christ and steadfastness. I am entering into a dangerous stage of life. Both Noah and David fell after they had walked with God for many years and fought many battles. My goal is to be faithful until the end. My wife’s great desire is also conformity to Christ, manifested in kindness, mercy, and patience, especially with regard to home schooling our children. For our children, our greatest desire is that they come to a biblical assurance of salvation and that they love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. For all the staff at HeartCry, we desire integrity and wisdom to administrate according to the will of God.