I’m not sure if the term Young Restless and Reformed ever really applied to me.
I am 45 years old, so that really doesn’t qualify as young. I’ve never self-identified as restless and I’m not entirely comfortable referring to myself as “reformed”.
Let me explain.
I grew up in an independent baptistic church where everyone believed that the Bible was God’s Word, Jesus was God’s Son and the cross was God’s answer to the sin and brokenness of this world.
It was a good church and it gave me a great foundation for a lifetime of enjoying the Lord.
When I was in Bible College I learned that my church was Dispensational. I’m not sure if I had ever heard that term before but I was hearing it a lot at the time because of a controversy involving a teacher at the college who was being fired for going soft on “Dispensationalism”. I figured that as a student at the school I should know what that was. If they were firing teachers over it, then presumably it was a salvation level issue.
My studies led me to conclude that I was not a Dispensationalist and therefore probably not at the right Bible College. I had only planned on being there for a year anyway but now I returned to my intended course of study freshly determined to develop my own theological system. My experience at Bible College taught me that people who are more committed to their system than they are to the Bible are headed for trouble. I resolved to learn the Biblical languages and to study the Bible thoroughly on my own before reaching any systematic conclusions.
Of course that sounds very arrogant and naïve – and of course it was, I was young and young people are supposed to be naïve and they are allowed to be arrogant as long as it doesn’t become a life-long habit.
I remember making a list of theological issues I needed to sort out:
1. How does election work?
2. Can people lose their salvation?
3. Are the gifts of the Spirit still functioning?
4. Can women be pastors?
5. How does the Old Testament go with the New Testament?
6. What is the function of the law?
7. Is hell forever?
8. Should I expect the church to grow or shrink in the days and years ahead?
I find it interesting now to notice what questions I wasn’t asking. I’ve never doubted the truthfulness, sufficiency or authority of the Bible.
There has never been a day in my life that I can remember when I wasn’t sure that the Bible was God’s Word. I’ve liked the word “inerrancy” for as long as I’ve known it. It captures what I believe about the Bible. The Bible is a Divine Book and a human book, yet without error. When it speaks, God speaks.
I’ve never not believed that. I’ve never not found comfort in that.
And I’ve never doubted the goodness or wisdom of what the Bible has to say about sex. Now, granted, I first started working on this list in 1992 and homosexuality and transgenderism was not on anyone’s short list of issues to be figured out back in those days. But even still, I’ve always figured that God made us, so he probably knows best how all the pieces should go together.
I’ve also never doubted the effectiveness of the cross. I believed in the cross before I ever understood it. Since I was 6 years old I have believed that Jesus died on the cross to pay for my sins. His death was the death I owed God. He went to hell (in some way I didn’t actually understand) so that I didn’t have to. Because of his death, I have peace with God and relate to him as a favoured son.
I’ve always believed that, though I didn’t always understand it. I discovered that I didn’t really understand it when I was required to preach my first Good Friday sermon in 2007. Preaching on something requires you to do more than believe in it – you have to understand it enough to articular its worth and glory to other people and I discovered that I wasn’t adequately equipped to do that. To remedy that deficiency I read most of John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ”. I say “most of” because I didn’t actually finish it before preaching my sermon, but I did finish it after preaching my sermon and I agreed with – and delighted in – everything I read in that book and everything I read in Leon Morris’ book “The Apostolic Preaching Of The Cross”. Those two books, more than any of the others which I’ve read subsequently, have more or less set in stone what I believe about the cross of Jesus Christ.
I suppose, in reflection, I was “lucky” with respect to my atonement theology. I believed in the right way, even before I understood what I was believing – thanks be to God!
But back to my list.
I worked away on that list from 1992 through 2009. Of course I didn’t begin “neutral” on any of those items. In 1992 I wasn’t sure about election but I didn’t like the idea that I wasn’t making real choices so I was definitely leaning in the direction of Arminianism, while being unsettled by the number of Bible passages that seemed to clearly assert God’s Sovereignty. With respect to the issue of eternal security, I thought that truly saved people are eternally secure but a bunch of people who think they are saved, probably are not. With respect to the gifts of the Spirit, I wanted to say yes, but I also thought Pentecostals were a little out there. As to women in ministry, I thought the Bible said no, but then someone I really liked said yes and he told me that there were secret clues in the Greek so I decided to defer that one for later. The Old Testament was clearly God’s Word but there were also clearly some big changes as a result of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The law was good, but didn’t save and had to be read through the lens of the cross. Hell was probably forever, though some really good people weren’t sure. Everything in my childhood conditioned me to expect things to get worse for the church, but my reading of the Gospels seemed to challenge that.
That was my starting place on these issues back in 1992.
Over the course of the next 17 years I changed my mind on almost every issue on that list – sometimes more than once. There was a brief time when I was a convinced egalitarian, largely because a teacher told me that he had looked into it and landed there. I figured that until I had done the work myself, I should take him at his word. Then I did the work and changed my mind. I changed my mind on election and once I had that in place that pretty much answered the eternal security issue. If God saves you then you stay saved. He finishes what he starts. The gifts of the Spirit are given at God’s Sovereign disposal and should not be rejected because some people are rolling around on the carpet acting like fools. Doing something wrong is not an argument against doing something right. The Old Testament is the New concealed and the New Testament is the Old revealed and Jesus is the heart and centre of it all – thanks be to God! The law is good because it shows us that we are sinners and points us toward the grace of God in Christ. It also teaches us how to love each other and honour God. Hell is forever and terrible beyond all imagination and we should do everything in our power to see that no one ever goes there. And the world will probably get better and worse in the days ahead as the culture implodes and the Gospel increases and the middle ground is evacuated en masse.
That’s where I landed in 2009 and when I tallied up my list, I discovered to my surprise that I was reformed. I even had some adjectives to go with that: I was complementarian, continuationist reformed – fancy that!
Even though it took me 17 years of study, prayer, repentance and conversation to arrive at these convictions I never thought of my journey as complete. I had to admit that I had landed within “the reformed camp” but the “ed” on the end of the word “reform” made me very nervous.
I was not a “creed” guy.
Maybe that was my independent fundamentalist gene reasserting itself but, while I appreciate creeds and while I respect the faith of those who wrote them, I haven’t yet read a reformed creed that I agree with 100%. I’m a Baptist by conviction so any creed that advances infant baptism or that disparages congregational polity will of course be taken with a grain of salt. The 1689 Baptist Confession says some things about the Pope that I think go beyond the clear and common sense reading of the Bible. So – I haven’t yet found a creed that I believe perfectly summarizes what God is saying to us in Holy Scripture. I’m a creedal minimalist and a Bible maximalist and I prefer to think of myself as “reforming” as opposed to “reformed”.
“Reformed” sounds finished. It sounds closed. And while I’ve landed on each of the issues identified in my original list, I have new questions and new concerns that I hadn’t even thought of back in 1992. There are still things I want to wrestle with and I don’t want to feel obligated to certain answers before I’ve had the opportunity to put in the work myself.
So label me: “in process”.
I want to keep reading my Bible, listening to friends and neighbours, repenting, praying, consulting the past and seeking the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit. I see through a glass darkly and I know only in part so I don’t think I’ll ever be fully reformed though I don’t expect to migrate beyond the borders.
I also don’t identify as restless.
Now, granted, my experience of the church is my own and may not have been very typical. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a negative experience of church. All of the churches I’ve been a part of have had flaws but none have been abusive or heretical or self-serving. They’ve all been filled with really good people who love Jesus and who want to do whatever it takes to reach their friends and loved ones with the Gospel.
Some have been more effective than others.
Some have been more courageous than others.
Some have been more thoughtful than others.
Some have been more compassionate than others.
But not a single one of them is without certain praiseworthy and commendable qualities. I don’t want to blow any of them up or tear any of them down. I’m thankful for each and every one of them.
In fact, thankful is the emotion I identify with most at this stage of my life. I wake up most days just happy to be alive and surprised to still be in ministry – and lucky to still be married. While I was busy sorting out my theological list, I wasn’t always as attentive to my own growth and sanctification as a person. I was a 90-10 Christian in my 20’s. 90% of my Christian life took place in my brain and only about 10% took place anywhere else. I was overworking some areas of my life and completely neglecting several significant others.
I was rude, arrogant, impatient, selfish and lacking in self-control.
I can honestly say that if I had been my Senior Pastor in 1999 I would have fired me. In fact I think I should have been fired. I am amazed at the grace and mercy that I’ve been shown in the church and by God’s people.
And I’m surprised that my wife is still with me.
It took me about 15 years to figure out how to be married. Given what I see in the mirror in the morning and what I remember about myself from those days, I am shocked and amazed that she stuck around.
And most of all I am astonished that God would still use me – and has used me all throughout those turbulent years. Students that I led poorly are still walking with Jesus – some of them are even in ministry. They are having kids of their own and showing them how to follow the Lord – that is an absolute marvel to me!
If I had been God back in 2005 I would have struck Paul Carter dead – and yet here I am. Forgiven, strengthened and deployed.
What a mercy!
What a kindness!
What a Lord!
Label me as thankful and grateful to the core.
So where does that leave me?
Middle-aged, grateful and in process – and also a bit of an ecclesiological refugee. The Evangelicalism of my youth no longer exists. The Big Tent blew away in a hurricane of cultural headwinds and internal rot and confusion. Her children have scattered and reorganized and I am very thankful that the “Young, Restless and Reformed” crowd has made a little room for me in their movement.
The world changes, the lines move and the towers fall, but the Lord is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.