A Restorationist Reflects on a Reformed Perspective

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana allowed me to come in contact with people of many different religious persuasions. While my father was raised as a Latter-day Saint, my mother was brought up in the Methodist church, but neither she nor her parents were very active or involved in the local church. Even before she married Dad, she began attending the local branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with him. She was formally baptized into the Church and quickly was caught up into mid-week activities, attendance at Relief Society meetings (the Church’s organization for women), and in Sunday meetings, both the main worship service (called the Sacrament meeting) and Sunday school.

There was appreciable religious variety within my extended family. My paternal grandparents lived in Reserve, Louisiana (just outside New Orleans) and were very devoted Roman Catholics. Most of my uncles and aunts were staunch Baptists, while one family were committed Pentecostals. One of my Pentecostal cousins became so involved in worship and church functions that he eventually became, for short time, an associate pastor to a man in that area whose popularity and influence were quickly spreading beyond the city and state—Jimmy Swaggert. As I was about to enter the sixth grade, my family moved about thirty miles southwest of Baton Rouge to a small  community that I discovered was about 90% Catholic.

I take the time to mention this much about my own past in order to point out that I had never encountered a man or woman who belonged to a Calvinist or Reformed tradition until I served as a 19-year old full-time missionary in the Eastern United States (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts). And even during that period the conversations were brief and quite shallow. I didn’t really get beyond a slight introduction to the Reformed tradition until I was working on my doctorate in religious studies at Florida State University. I recall especially one semester reading Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will and selected portions of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was then that I was introduced to both the doctrine of human depravity and unconditional election. I have since had the opportunity to read the works of several Reformed thinkers, and while I do not agree on all theological points, I am fascinated with the Reformed worldview and focus.

In May of 2000 the Latter-day Saint/Evangelical dialogue met for the first time on the BYU campus I Provo, Utah (this dialogue will be formally ended in Spring 2022). Some of the Evangelicals who have taken part through the years include Gregory Johnson (an Evangelical pastor in Utah), David Neff (at the time editor of Christianity Today), James Bradley (Fuller Seminary), Craig Blomberg (Denver Seminary), Craig Hazen (Biola University), Gerald McDermott (Roanoke College and later Beeson Divinity School), Cory Willson (Calvin Seminary), and Richard Mouw (Fuller Seminary). Richard became the head of the Evangelical contingent, while I became the convener of the Latter-day Saint group.

Because Rich Mouw is a devoted Calvinist and a serious student of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, he and I have had extended discussions about Reformed theology. Of the Evangelical group mentioned above, four were very committed Calvinists. It would have been impossible through a period of two decades not to have become more conversant with and even appreciative of the Reformed traditions.

In Wesley’s article, paragraph 6, he mentions two doctrinal lessons that he learned early at Hope College. The first is that Grace “comes solely as God’s initiative, as pure gift. Faith is never an achievement or personal accomplishment.” A Latter-day Saint who knows his or her religion very well would echo a quiet “Amen.” There is no question but that grace cannot be earned or bartered for, since it is a gift; otherwise it would a reward or a wage that one had earned.

The second lesson that Wesley learned at Hope College is that “Following Jesus can’t remain individualized. It’s more than ‘Jesus and me.’ It involves God and the world.” This is a matter on which I have reflected a great deal in my twenty-five year association with my Evangelical friends. I have encountered the “Jesus and me” mindset on scores of occasions. The problem with that perspective and lifestyle is that Christianity can only be worked out fully in community, since how we deal with, speak to and speak of, and associate with others is a fairly accurate sign of what kind of Christian we are. The Apostle Paul had something to say about that when he wrote of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-25).

One Christian teacher, D. Steven Long, explained that “when we so emphasize Christ’s benefits that he becomes nothing more than what his significance is ‘for me’ we are in danger. . . . Evangelism that says ‘come on, it’s good for you’; discipleship that concentrates on the benefits package; sermons that ‘use’ Jesus as the means to a better life or marriage or job or attitude—these all turn Jesus into an expression of that nice god who always meets my spiritual needs. And this is why I am increasingly hesitant to speak of Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. As Ken Woodward (former editor of Newsweek and an Evangelical himself) put it in a 1994 essay: ‘Now I think we all need to be converted—over and over again, but having a personal savior has always struck me as, well, elitist, like having a personal tailor. I’m satisfied to have the same Lord and Savior as everyone else.’ Jesus is not a personal savior who only seeks to meet my needs. He is the risen, crucified Lord of all creation who seeks to guide me back into the truth.” (Cited in D. Brent Latham, God is Not. . . . [2004], 49-50.)

When followers of Jesus begin to see our Lord as no more than the solver of my problems, the one who always hastens to meet my needs, the one who ensures that I am continually basking in a state of bliss, they come hauntingly close to how sociologist Christian Smith at Notre Dame characterized a surprising number of today’s youth—moralistic therapeutic deists. (See Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [2005], 162-70.)

I appreciate the way Dr. Granberg-Michaelson put it: “Christian faith is carried communally; it’s personal but not individualistic . . . a vehicle for the initiative of God’s grace.”

In paragraph 9 of Wesley’s article, he begins to describe how the Reformed Tradition is confessional. I can certainly appreciate the value of creeds and confessions in terms of delineating and defining orthodoxy and thereby avoiding heresy. There must be a way to avoid or at least manage what might be called “doctrinal drift.” On the other hand, I am one who senses that God is much less concerned with how accurately and precisely we define the faith than He is with whether we are living the faith, particularly how we love and reach out to all the children of God. Occasionally, when in our dialogue some of our Evangelical friends would, in a kind and rather respectful manner, point out the flaws of Latter-day Saint theology, one of the members of our group would raise the question: “How much bad doctrine do you suppose the saving work of Jesus Christ can cover?”

My specific concern with creeds is that too often through the Christian centuries creeds have created distance between the children of God—separated and divided people on the basis of belief; have built walls and drawn strict lines in the sand between what is “orthodox” and what is “heretical”; have fostered pride and antagonism on the part of those who wear their beliefs like a badge of belonging. Given the division, animosity, suspicion, and incivility within today’s America, I am haunted by the Savior’s plea, uttered in His great Intercessory Prayer: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21; English Standard Version).

The longer I live and the more God-fearing and Christ-affirming people I encounter, the more I see the Almighty working through noble people throughout the earth. Rich Mouw wrote: “[W]hile I am no universalist, my own inclination is to emphasize the ‘wideness of God’s mercy’ rather than the ‘small number of the elect’ motif that has often dominated the Calvinist outlook. I take seriously the Bible’s vision of the final gathering-in of the elect, of that ‘great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,’ who shout the victory cry, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb’ (Revelation 7:9-10).” Now note these words from Mouw: “For all I know—and for all any of us can know—much of what we now think of as common grace may in the end time be revealed to be saving grace. But in the meantime, we are obligated to serve the Lord in accordance to patterns he has made clear to us.” (He Shines in All That’s Fair [2001], 100; emphasis added.)