Understanding the New Calvinism: More Identifying Marks

Relevance and Missional Living

One of the key buzzwords used by a large number of young evangelicals, including the restless and Reformed, is “relevant.” By this is meant that our Christian lives and our churches need to reveal an “authentic” (another buzzword) faith. We need to scratch where people itch. We need to show people that Christ and the gospel are germane to real life. More than that, we need to demonstrate that Christians are real people, with real hurts, pains and problems just like the unsaved. A Christian is not someone who is so different that he cannot relate to unbelievers. The difference Christ has made in our lives is not that we have become perfect or so “holy” that we are weird and unapproachable by the unsaved. In fact, we are like them except that Christ has forgiven us our sins and has become the central focus of our lives.

Much of this philosophy is good, and should be considered seriously. The next step is to learn to relate to unbelievers rather than isolating ourselves from them. The neo-Calvinist believes that we live out this kind of relevancy primarily by being “missional” (yet another buzzword). This word has been so over used and abused that even those who love it sometimes are not sure what it means. Missional usually implies living out a life of love and care for others, serving and ministering in such a way that Christ is glorified in us and people are therefore drawn to Him and His saving grace.

There is much positive to say about living relevant, missional lives. Many serious Christians have developed a bunker mentality in which they hide from unbelievers as much as possible, hoping to protect themselves from bad influences. If they witness at all it is through unnatural methods such as cold-turkey evangelism in which they engage total strangers with the gospel and then retreat to their bunker. While this methodology has been in vogue for years, it is artificial and does not allow the unregenerate to see Christ at work in the believer’s life.

The missional approach places Christians in the lives of those who need Christ. As we live authentically the idea is that the unsaved will see the transformation that Christ has brought about in our lives and will be drawn to it. Missional is a reversal of isolationism with an occasional foray into “enemy territory.” It is a full engagement in the world in which the unbeliever lives in order to be light and salt to them. This engagement is not purely for evangelism, which is usually viewed as manipulation (this is how the young, restless, and Reformed see so-called “friendship evangelism”). Rather, missional living is involvement with others in order to bless them, whether they come to Christ for salvation or not.

Again, there is much that could be learned from this emphasis on missional and authentic living but, before we sign-off on all of this, some cautions are in order. Missional living, in which believers are seeking the good of others, has a history of becoming an end in itself. This will be discussed further below when we look closer at social concerns and the gospel. Just as we can go too far by viewing the unsaved as mere targets or prospects for evangelism, we can go too far and see our temporary blessing of their lives as enough.

Certainly showing love to our neighbor is an appropriate end in itself. We should not show such love just to maneuver people into position so that we can fire our gospel missiles at them. But on the other hand, loving our neighbor could not be more perfectly expressed than by introducing them to the Savior. Blessing the lives of people, bringing happiness, comfort, and meeting their physical or emotional needs are wonderful things, but they are not a fulfillment of the Great Commission which calls for us to make disciples, not just bless people (Matt 28:19-20).

And I find it interesting that even when evangelism is still the focus, in their effort to be relevant some of the New Calvinists turn Arminian, at least in their methodology. As will be demonstrated in the next section, many are on the hunt for new approaches that they believe will connect with the unsaved and will therefore win their hearts for Christ. Even as they would claim to believe that the unregenerate do not seek for God (Rom 3:10-18), and that unbelievers consider the gospel foolishness until the Lord opens their eyes and draws them to Himself (1 Cor 1:18), at the same time many of the neo-Calvinists have become dependent on new, relevant means by which to help God win sinners. This can lead to compromise of the truth in order to make the gospel appear attractive to the lost. This is the topic we will take up next.

Culturally Engaged/Worldliness

The idea of being culturally engaged has been around evangelicalism for decades. It was perhaps the defining issue that ultimately separated the fundamentalists and the (called at the time) neo-evangelicals (now evangelicals) in the 1950s. The question on the table was how much accommodation to the culture was necessary to engage it? Since the secular culture in general sees the gospel and biblical Christianity as foolishness, what will we have to do as Christians to get its approval?

Fundamentalists eventually chose not to worry about engaging culture and to focus their attention on rescuing people from a Christ-rejecting world. Their churches became an oasis populated by like-minded believers who wanted to worship God, devote themselves to prayer and the Word and be a beacon of spiritual light to what they called “the lost and dying world.” The danger for the fundamentalist was becoming ingrown and losing a passion for the lost, except during specialized evangelistic campaigns and efforts. The danger for the neo-evangelical was losing the biblical purpose of the church and becoming compromised by the very world that they were trying to reach.

Evidence of compromise (not unlike earlier evangelicals experienced) with the young, restless and Reformed movement is readily available, although that evidence can be interpreted a number of ways. What the neo-Calvinists call engaging culture is often termed worldliness by its critics. Here we must define worldliness as the Bible does, not as many conservative Christians do today. Worldliness is not primarily a matter of dos and don’ts, of entertainment preferences or convictions, but a mindset of one who James would say desires to be a friend of the world and its corrupt system of life. In James 4:4 we read,

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

While James is addressing a different context we see that coziness with the world system is spiritual adultery. In the context of engaging the culture just how close can we get before we begin to mimic the world rather than engage it for Christ?

Said another way, in order for ourselves and our message not to appear foolish to the unregenerate, what are we willing to compromise in doctrine and in practice? Here are a few concerns that are troubling:

Openness to evolution

Many believe it is hard to be accepted seriously in our modern era and yet subscribe to some form of a young-earth creation account. If we are to engage culture it seems paramount that we accept evolution, but how do we do so and stay faithful to Scripture? Timothy Keller believes he has found the formula. He is representative of many who acknowledge some form of theistic evolution (in his case it is progressive evolution). In his highly-regarded apologetic volume, The Reason for God, he writes,

I think Genesis 1 has the earmarks of poetry and is therefore a “song” about the wonder and meaning of God’s creation. Genesis 2 is an account of how it happened…For the record I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory…[quoting David Atkinson], “if ‘evolution’ remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating process.”1

Keller is unofficially linked with Bio-Logos, an organization dedicated to the promotion of theistic evolution.


When Mark Driscoll started his church, Mars Hill in Seattle, Washington he wanted to be relevant and he wanted his church to grow numerically. In order to do both he realized the power of music to draw the masses. He said, “I envisioned a large church that hosted concerts for non-Christian bands and fans on a phat sound system, embracing the arts.”2 Virtually any form of music, performed by excellent musicians, regardless of whether they knew Christ, was used to grow the church. At one point the church began to host concerts at an auditorium which, “rarely hosted Christian bands since our main goal was getting non-Christian kids to come to the concerts.”3

Driscoll is not alone in advocating the use of secular and often ungodly music and musicians in order to draw a crowd. Keller has the same philosophy concerning using unbelievers to minister at church services because of their expertise. He writes,

First, we use only professional and/or trained musicians for our corporate worship services, and we pay them all…Second, we often include non-Christian musicians in our services who have wonderful gifts and talents…When we invite non-Christians to use their talents in corporate worship, we are simply calling them, along with every creature, to bring their “peculiar honors” and gifts to praise their Creator.4

Many, including myself, would challenge this use of either secular music or unsaved musicians as ministers within the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12 speaks of the Lord giving to the child of God spiritual gifts to minister within the local church, and the Spirit placing each of us within the body of Christ just as He desires (1 Cor 12:7, 11, 18, 24, 28) for the edification of the church. There is no biblical warrant for using unbelievers, or their godless worldview, via music, simply because it professionalizes the presentation or draws a crowd. The ends don’t justify the means.

Crudeness and drinking

To the extent that Mark Driscoll has influenced the New Calvinism movement it would appear crudeness and profanity are acceptable to many, apparently as a means of relating to unbelievers and being authentic. In his Confessions of a Reformission Rev, we find Driscoll comfortable with barnyard words (pp. 67, 94, 128, 129, 134), gross descriptions of the effects of the stomach flu (p. 177), sexual innuendos (pp. 59-60, 94-96, 128), and even crude depictions of God such as repeatedly referring to “God the Ghost” (pp. 7, 26, 34, 47, 74). Driscoll’s language is often shocking and he has influenced a horde of followers. It would seem the idea is that cleaner language apparently puts unbelievers off and they feel more comfortable with those who talk like them. Driscoll is an admitted curser (pp. 47, 50, 71, 97, 99, 128, 130). He is even known as “Mark the cussing pastor” in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (pp. 96-97) and there is no indication in either this book or later in his ministry that Driscoll has reformed his foul language.

And separation from worldly activities does not fit Driscoll’s missional strategy either. He speaks often of drinking and frequenting bars (e.g. pp. 51, 131, 146), buying lottery tickets (p. 58), admiring and learning from foul-mouthed entertainers such as Chris Rock (pp. 43, 70), stealing a sound system (p. 62) and setting himself up for sexual temptation (which he claims to have resisted) (p. 128).

It would be wrong to say that all New Calvinists buy into Driscoll’s speech and actions, but Driscoll (until his recent exposure led to being removed from Acts 29’s board and resigning from Mars Hill) has been highly regarded within these circles and has been reported to be the world’s most downloaded and quoted pastor. Yet we should take Peter Master’s critique seriously (Masters is the long-time pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle in London where Charles Spurgeon ministered),

“You cannot have Puritan soteriology without Puritan sanctification. You should not entice people to Calvinistic (or any) preaching by using worldly bait. We hope that young people in this movement will grasp the implications of the doctrines better than their teachers, and come away from the compromises. But there is a looming disaster in promoting this new form of Calvinism.”5

Theological compromise

Many of the New Calvinistic guides follow the fads of the moment and quote Christian leaders that are popular in the culture, despite errant teachings from these fads and leaders. Tim Keller likes to quote Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm Muggeridge and G. K. Chesterton, all Roman Catholics with heretical understanding concerning many doctrines including the gospel.6 When someone espouses that salvation is obtained by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (the teaching of Reformed theology), then turns around and quotes favorably from those who deny these very teachings, what are we to make of such things? And when Keller develops his doctrine of hell from the writings of C. S. Lewis, who denied many orthodox teachings of the church7 instead of the Bible, what are we to think? That these individuals resonate with the masses is undeniable. But when truth is muddled for the sake of relevancy it is a bad trade.


1 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, (New York: Dutton, 2008), pp. 94-95.

2 Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 40.

3 Ibid., p. 126, (cf. pp. 68, 93, 100, 158).

4 Timothy Keller, “Reformed Worship in the Global City,” in Worship By the Book by D.A. Carson, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), pp. 238-239.

5 As quoted in E. S. Williams, The New Calvinists, Changing the Gospel (London: The Wakeman Trust, 2014), p. 11.

6 See Keller pp, 38, 177, 186, 197, 227, 230-31, 237-39, 240.

7 William M. Schweitzer, “A Brimstone-Free Hell” in Engaging With Keller: Thinking Through the Theology of an Influential Evangelical by Iain D. Campbell and William M. Schweitzer, ed. (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2013), pp. 65-96.

Gary Gilley Bio

Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

1513 reads
7234 reads

There are 5 Comments

Joel Shaffer's picture

I generally agree with the author in his evaluation of Driscoll and Keller in regards to cultural relevancy.  The question that none of us know is how much do the young restless reformed type embrace everything that Mark Driscoll or Tim Keller believe and practice, or do they have discernment to "eat the chicken and spit out the bones."   We have some younger men in our church that were downloading every sermon that Driscoll preached (most of which occurred 3-4 years ago) and the elders (including myself) of our church were able to talk through some of these issues in order to help them develop some discernment.      


Bert Perry's picture

if many of the "neoCalvinists" have ever actually read Calvin.  I just made it through The Institutes, and Calvin's criticism of the immorality of many Catholic ordained (from monks to the Pope) suggests the question of why aren't many neo-Calvinist leaders applying that same mode of criticism to themselves.

Now I can entertain a quibble over whether Anglo-Saxon verbiage (which became wrong after the Normans conquered England after all) constitutes the corrupt language spoken of in the New Testament, and whether enjoying what Christ made at Cana would be sin.  On the flip side, there are some fairly sophisticated arguments possible over the propriety of gambling (presuming upon the future), the wisdom of going into many bars (which tend to have a fairly strong emphasis on drunkenness and fornication), and the wisdom of using worldlings in music and such--arguments that I would have thought that the theologically sophisticated ought to at least review, if not agree with. 

Most troubling from my perspective (having left a church whose leadership was falling in love with Driscoll's buddy MacDonald) is the pattern of abuse of people in the movement, from abuse of elders to bullying steel contractors and more.  Not quite sure how one can reconcile that with the picture of a shepherd--it's more of the incompetent cowboy, really.

In other words, I would suggest that if they really knew and understood Calvin, their brashness would be tempered by the subtlety that Calvin exhibits in his writing.  They know the bulb, not the bard, of Calvinism. 

I am also skeptical that a man as combative as Driscoll has been to many bars, because his combative nature would have brought him into conflict with the bouncers.  Just sayin'.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

This series is so excellent, and this article is great, too -- except for the last paragraph.  The idea that quoting someone equates to endorsing someone is ridiculous.  Paul quotes Menander in I Corinthians 15:53.  A section of Proverbs is quoted (sometimes altered) from The Instruction of Amenemope (an Egyptian work).

The idea that quoting someone means endorsing them is logically fallacious.

Nonetheless, when we develop our beliefs from extra-biblical sources (like C.S. Lewis), that is never good., even if the sources are.



"The Midrash Detective"

dmyers's picture

I've tried to read several installments of this series because I can't get past the gross generalizations, cherry picked anecdotes, and overall hostility to Calvinism, new or otherwise.  Is there going to be an equal-time responsive series, or is SI now the comfortable home of not just non-Calvinists but anti-Calvinists?

I echo Ed Vasicek's criticism of the last paragraph of this installment, but I can't echo his praise of the overall series.  The last paragraph of this installment is just one example of many in the other installments that, to me, completely discredit the author's ability to be coherent, logical, and biblical.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.