New Calvinism is a broad church, with a wide range of beliefs, doctrines and practices. The Gospel Coalition (TGC), which started in 2007 with a conference headlined by Don Carson, Tim Keller and John Piper, was a significant event, for the Coalition has become a national network for the New Calvinist movement. Theologian Don Carson wrote the original draft of the confessional statement, while Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church,New York, wrote the theological call to ministry. The Gospel Coalition Council boasts familiar names like Tim Keller, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, Mark Dever, Al Mohler and Joshua Harris. Coalition leaders explain that they are not a ‘boundary set’, for that would mean nailing down the outer limits of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, and that they do not want. As a consequence just about everyone is welcome to join the TGC Network, whatever their doctrinal beliefs.
While there are certain characteristics around which New Calvinists are united, it is a broad movement, and not all practice their faith in the same way. While most claim to be faithful to Scripture, and to follow the essential tenets of Calvin’s theology, many are marked by a love for the ways and things of the world, which manifests itself in unbecoming conduct that is far removed from the ways and beliefs of traditional Calvinists and Puritans. Here are some of the key characteristics of New Calvinism:
1. Doctrinal errors
New Calvinism has a reputation for teaching the biblical doctrines of Calvin (TULIP). Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards are held up as heroes of the movement. But the reality is that while paying lip service to Calvin, Spurgeon and Edwards, New Calvinism, in fact, is weak in matters of doctrine.
New Calvinists seek to contextualise the gospel of truth to make it relevant to the postmodern world. Tim Keller is a major protagonist of this view. He teaches that for an inner city church to be successful it must contextualise the gospel to make it relevant to the needs of a multi-ethnic population. The message must be crafted to make it sensitive to the cultural trends of the day. So shaky is Tim Keller’s theology that in an interview with Martin Bashir, he says that he is unsure whether God has provided a trap door for unbelieving Muslims and Hindus. (Listen to the interview with Martin Bashir).
John Piper’s concept of the Christian hedonist is doctrinally flawed, as will show on this website. While Mark Driscoll claims to be a Calvinist, he separates doctrine from conduct. He hates rules and much of his ministry is antinomian in approach.
The New Calvinism movement is characterised by a careless attitude towards God’s moral law. A common assertion is that Christians are no longer under God’s law, but under God’s grace. It follows that the Christian life is not to be governed by a set of rules, or a set of commands, or a list of do’s and don’ts, for Christ’s grace has set us free. Obedience is not a popular concept. The subject index of Piper’s blueprint for Christian Hedonism, Desiring God (1987), contains over twenty references to happiness, but only one to obedience.
New Calvinism wants us to believe that God’s grace means that New Testament Christians are free from bondage to God’s moral law. Mark Driscoll uses this interpretation of Scripture to justify what he refers to as New Covenant tattoos. He declares in a sermon: ‘You are free in Christ to be weird… How about this one, tattoos? How many of you grew up in that fundamentalist church where they told you about the one verse on tattoos? Where is it? What book? Leviticus… It’s right here in Leviticus, don’t get a tattoo. Okay. But the thing is if you read the whole context it actually doesn’t apply—its old covenant, not new covenant, so Jesus has fulfilled the law.’
The idea that believers should strive to live in obedience to God’s moral law is dismissed as legalism. No, says the New Calvinist, we are free in Christ. Driscoll says that he hates religious people who have rules to obey, and lists of do’s and don’ts. He teaches that grace and works are antithetical. ‘Works is me boasting, grace is me boasting about Jesus. Works is me looking at what I’ve done; grace is looking at what Jesus has done.’ And while Scripture teaches that we are saved by grace alone, it goes on to say that the person who is saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus is saved ‘unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2.10).
In his book, Paths to Power (1911), AW Tozer defined antinomianism this way. “The creed of the Antinomian is easily stated: We are saved by faith alone; works have no place in salvation; conduct is works, and is therefore of no importance. What we do cannot matter, as long as we believe rightly. The divorce between creed and conduct is absolute and final. The question of sin is settled by the Cross; conduct is outside the circle of faith and cannot come between the believer and God. Such in brief, is the teaching of the Antinomian… It takes the teaching of justification by faith and twists it into deformity.”[i]
The Reformed faith teaches that the moral law of God has three uses. The first is to convict of sin and drive the repentant sinner to the Lord Jesus Christ. The second use of the law is to restrain lawlessness in society. The third use is to function as the rule of life for the believer. One of the most famous statements of this truth comes from the Puritan Samuel Bolton in The True Bounds of Christian Freedom: ‘The law sends us to the gospel for our justification; the gospel sends us to the law to frame our way of life.’[ii] The Puritan way of thinking and conduct is diametrically opposed to the ways of New Calvinism.
The fruit of New Calvinism’s antinomian tendency is a mindset that finds pleasure in the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2.15). Worldliness is a state of mind that conforms to the pattern and pleasures of the world; it does not seek to separate from the things of the world, or the entertainments of the world. This pattern of thinking allows great leeway in Christian conduct and is common among New Calvinists. Many New Calvinists teach that Christians are free in Christ to do anything that is not specifically forbidden in the Bible. So smoking and tattoos, reading worldly magazines, watching adult rated movies and salacious TV programmes, immodest dress, crude language, coarse joking are regarded by some as acceptable behaviour, for in the eyes of New Calvinists these forms of conduct are not specifically forbidden in the Bible. All forms of contemporary music, even punk rock, and hip-hop are accepted as permissible for Christians to enjoy. Those who say that these forms of conduct are not right for Christians are labelled as legalists, just like the Pharisees.
4. Contemporary Worship
What flows from the New Calvinist’s worldly mindset is a love for the music scene of the world. And so it is entirely predictable that contemporary worship is the most universal characteristic of New Calvinism. Mars Hill Church, Seattle, leads the way by claiming that God loves punk rock. Holy hip-hop is embraced by many New Calvinists and rap artists are regarded as the missionaries of the 21st Century, according to Mark Driscoll. Contemporary worldly music is an essential ingredient of the Passion Conference (Louie Gigilio and John Piper),The Resolved Conference (John MacArthur) and the Legacy Conference. The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2011 ended with a concert to celebrate the contemporary music scene. Delegates were invited to join Lecrae and the rest of the Reach Records rap artists as they ‘exalted Christ’ through the medium of hip-hop. The effect was to profane the Name of Christ, the Name which is above every name, and the Name to which every knee shall bow, on the altar of holy hip-hop. See Christian rap – Music of the New Calvinists
Passion Conference, worshipping the Lord through rap music,
The Gospel Coalition concert, http://youtu.be/flqkGFJjvHs
5. Emerging church
New Calvinists tend to be ambivalent about the emerging church movement. Mark Driscoll was involved with the emerging church, and claims to be on the Reformed end of the emerging spectrum. His book Confessions of a Reformission Rev (2006) is described as ‘hard lessons from an Emerging Missional Church’. Many are sympathetic to the emerging church movement and contemplative prayer is encouraged by some, such as Keller’s Redeemers Presbyterian Church in New York, which promotes the Monk’s prayer.
You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll’s and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from belmonthousebooks.com/