One way to summarize the doctrine of divine sovereignty is this: It is God who acts, not man. How will the lost be saved? God must act. How will sinful Christians overcome the “old man”? God must act. How will the church grow in both holiness and influence? Again, God must act. He is the sovereign; He is the great Actor in every aspect of our spiritual life.
This reflection lies at the heart of the Reformed emphasis on the common means of grace. If nothing good happens without God acting, we rightly ask the question, “Then how will He act?” In the same way that those who are thirsty go daily to the well, so those who understand our absolute dependence on divine grace go regularly to those places where God has promised to make Himself known.
It is for this reason that Reformed Christianity has always put a great emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God. God manifests His presence in the sacraments and in prayer, but He especially makes Himself known in the preached Word. That is why Paul wrote so forcefully about the necessity of preaching in Romans 10:14-15.
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”
Paul saw gospel preaching as an indispensable part of God’s plan for the redemption of sinners. Where there is no preaching, there is no knowledge, no faith, no prayer, and no forgiveness. This has nothing to do with the power of preachers and everything to do with God’s sovereign will. He makes His grace known in the manner of His choosing, and the manner He has chosen is preaching.
Reformed Christians have therefore consistently affirmed the importance of the preached Word. As our own Confession puts it, following Westminster,
The Grace of Faith, whereby the Elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the Ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, Prayer and other Means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. (Second London Confession, xiv:1)
This conviction is a necessary consequence of any consistent adherence to the principle of sovereignty. If God is truly sovereign over all gracious work in the soul, then He must control the means by which that work progresses, and further, those means will be the ones identified in His Word.
In contrast to the Reformed consensus on the means of grace, charismaticism has always and inevitably engaged in the belittlement of the ministry of the Word. What has been observed in charismatic churches for decades continues to hold true; no matter what is said of the importance of preaching, the real moment of communion with God comes when there is a prophetic utterance – no matter how banal. Wherever the church adopts charismatic doctrine, emotions must increase and thoughts decrease.
This is no accident of history; an un-serious approach to Scripture is a necessary pre-condition for charismaticism. Consider what would happen if the charismatic were to take the Bible seriously.
First, he would discover the nature of biblical miracles, and he would have to acknowledge that nothing like them has happened anywhere in the church in over nineteen hundred years. So long as he doesn’t look at the Bible too closely he can pretend that modern babblings are “tongues,” or that psychological palliatives are “healings.” Any serious study of New Testament miracle puts an end to such nonsense.
Second, he would discover the power of the Holy Spirit and realize that no church is capable of suppressing Him. The new believers in Acts were not searching for power from on high; no one but Simon Magus did that. Rather, they were carried away by the unstoppable power of the Spirit. Modern charismaticism depends on the notion that most churches somehow prevent the Holy Spirit from exercising His power, but that cannot be true of the Almighty Spirit found in Scripture.
Third, he would find that the Bible expressly speaks of the end of charismatic gifts, and at that point he would have a template within which to understand the last nineteen hundred years. He would realize why it is that the miracles of the Apostolic Age no longer occur, and he would understand that it has nothing to do with proud churches somehow getting the better of the Holy Spirit.
Charismatic doctrine cannot survive sound expository preaching; that is why it inserts a new means of grace. Instead of preaching – by which mind, heart and will are engaged by the Word of God – the charismatic emphasizes “power” – a quintessentially emotional experience divorced from the actual content of the Word. This is why charismatics are simply not Reformed. No matter how much a charismatic might speak about the sovereignty of God, he can never affirm the corresponding and necessary doctrine of the means of grace, and thus his understanding of sovereignty can only be truncated and transient.
Which brings us to Tope Koleoso and his already infamous sermon at Desiring God 2013. Entitled “Sovereign Grace, Spiritual Gifts, and the Pastor; How Should a Reformed Pastor Be Charismatic?”, Pastor Koleoso’s message is a rather standard example of charismatic boilerplate. It is hard to recognize anything of sovereign grace outside the title, and it was distinctly anti-Reformed in the end.
Some of Pastor Koleoso’s lapses in logic were obvious. He equated the power of the Holy Spirit with the charismata, as though the Spirit does not demonstrate power in any other way. He assumed that those who reject the charismata can only do so from fear, from pragmatism, or from pride, as though he never heard of the extensive exegetical arguments for the cessation of gifts. He absolutized Christ’s words “the things that I do” in John 12:14, but in an arbitrary manner – we must preach, teach, heal, and deliver; thankfully we are not called upon to redeem, propitiate, create, etc.
What I find more instructive, though, are the more subtle tendencies of his message. As his sermon progressed, Pastor Koleoso seemed increasingly antagonistic toward the ministry of the Word, and at the same time he drove his listeners toward an emotion-centered view of worship. In his eyes preachers without the charismata are arrogant and self-centered, longing for the dignity of preaching and unwilling to surrender to the movement of the Spirit. He panned preaching in general as an unhelpful display of pride from men who are not willing to share their platform with God. Meanwhile, it is important – critical, even! – that men raise their hands in worship and make a great display of their “openness” to the Spirit.
If this sermon is evaluated from an actually Reformed perspective one must conclude that Pastor Koleoso has replaced preaching as the primary means of grace with something ill-defined – a somewhat existential experience of spiritual fire which might just be doused by a man proclaiming the words of the Bible. And indeed he is right: the words of the Bible reveal such rank emotionalism to be sub-Christian, a remnant of paganism.
Many are sad this week that such a message came out of Desiring God, but the confessional and Reformed Christian ought not be surprised. Two lessons should be drawn from this mess.
First, no matter how many “New Calvinists” try to prove otherwise, charismaticism is incompatible with Reformed doctrine. Desiring God has tried to hold the door open to charismatics without jettisoning divine sovereignty, but this cannot work. Hold that door open, and sooner or later the charismatic disparagement of the means of grace will charge through, and without the doctrine of means, sovereign grace is rendered unintelligible.
Secondly, Desiring God suffers from the non-confessionalism of the entire “New Calvinist” movement. Where there is no established doctrinal standard beyond a one-page recitation of orthodoxy, there can be no consistency from one generation to the next. Today’s leaders may espouse a mild charismaticism joined with Reformed literature and ethos, but today’s leaders must retire from the scene, and when they do, who can say what is coming? This is precisely why Reformed churches have always been confessional. When pastors are bound by confessional oath to uphold such statements as “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…” (Second London Confession, i:1) each generation has a solid defense against the encroaching fads of its day.
That “Reformed Charismaticism” should eventually go down this path – dragging the rest of the “New Calvinism” with it – was predictable. Such a doctrine has no solid confession. It pays scant attention to the means of grace. It is not actually Reformed in any meaningful sense.
Tom Chantry, Pastor
Christ Reformed Baptist Church