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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

Reformed Snobbery

August 27, 2015 •

According to its introductory statement, Place for Truth is a forum for reflections on theology in its entire spectrum from biblical through to its practical expressions. In light of these parameters, I did wonder whether or not this particular reflection belongs here, or perhaps somewhere else. But, on balance, I think there is a place for it on the grounds that our theology is not defined merely by what it articulates, but how it shapes us. How we wear our theology says a lot about how well we have grasped it and to what extent it has grasped us.

Paul puts his finger on it in what he says to the Romans about the life-transforming power of God’s truth. He says, ‘But thanks be to God, that though you were slaves to sin, you have become obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed’ (Romans 6.17) [NASB95]. He is saying, quite literally, that God’s truth, when it is properly grasped, reshapes our lives from the inside out.

The context behind this statement is Paul’s discussion of the place of obedience to God in light of the fact salvation is by grace. And his argument, answering the unspoken question ‘Shall we keep on sinning so that grace may increase?’ (Romans 6.1), is that God’s grace in the gospel really does enable us to change. In other words, the truth revealed in the Bible is not only heard in how we express it; but is also seen in the way we live it out.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this little article, ‘Reformed Snobbery’? The answer is that it actually has a great deal to do with it, because one of the sad ironies that recur within the Reformed community is the absence of Reformed humility.

On paper, when we survey the landscape of a Reformed understanding of the faith, it becomes clear that the focus of God’s entire revelation is God himself and all that he has planned, accomplished and delivered in terms of salvation for a lost world. Although we as the objects of his saving love are very much in the frame of what he has revealed and accomplished, it is not as agents, but as beneficiaries of redemption. So, as Paul says elsewhere, ‘Where then is boasting? It is excluded’ (Romans 3.27). There is no room for us to claim he credit for what we have because, from beginning to end, ‘Salvation is of the LORD’ (John 2.9).

In terms of Reformation history, this implication of a Reformed understanding of theology was expressed in terms of the five great ‘Solas’ of the Reformation. All of which pointed to God alone as being worthy of honour, not just for the blessing of salvation, but also for all things. This was also expressed in the piety of the Reformers and their successors. It is seen most notably in the fact that, despite the robustness of their convictions and the vigour of their polemics, they were not arrogant men, but men of grace and humility.

However, in practice, the implications of these great observations often has not filtered through into the attitude and life of those who claim to hold them as the confession of their faith. Instead of humility, there is arrogance. When there should be patience and gentleness with those for whom this expression of the Christian faith is new, there is disdain and abrasiveness. I once witnessed it in a gathering of ministers in which one young man declared, ‘We [those who are Reformed] are the elite; the SAS [British version of the Navy SEALS] of the Christian world.’ Perhaps not surprisingly, the said young man is not longer in the ministry and the church he pastored no longer exists.

Such behaviour is, of course, by no means confined to those who claim to be the theological heirs of John Calvin. But, of all people, they should know better. The theology to which they adhere, by its own profession, acknowledges that it is far more than just a body of dogma; it is a way of life. It is truth that not only enlightens the mind with knowledge; it enlarges the heart with love, grace and mercy and in so doing transforms how we relate to others.

Indeed the very fact that this approach to Scripture demonstrates that the accent in the message of the Bible always falls on the triune God of the Bible in its very essence brings us to our knees before him in wonder love and praise. And, at the same time, it brings us to our knees before our fellow-Christians as well as our fellow-human beings, as we relate to them in the same way God has related to us: namely, with grace, mercy and love.

Snobbery and elitism are never attractive, no matter where they are found. But they are particularly out of place among those who claim to have dug most deeply into the truth of God’s word. There is a very real sense in which the more we grasp of who God is, what he is like and how much he has done for us in salvation, the more we should be humbled before him. And, in tandem with this, it should humble us within the wider family of the church to share with others the good things God has helped us to grasp from the Bible. We should never forget the admonition of Peter,

‘All of you, clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because,

“God opposes the proud

but gives grace to the humble.”

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.’ (1Peter 5:5-6).

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