You’ve heard about the “old” Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Their recovery of core biblical doctrines paved the way for what we call Protestantism.
Those first Reformers certainly did not agree on everything, but when it came to the mysterious interplay of divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation, they all leaned toward prioritizing God’s role. This position has come to be referred to as ‘Calvinism’ or ‘Reformed theology.’
Yet from the earliest days of Protestantism there arose an alternate stream that tilted toward a greater emphasis on human free will. This camp is generally called ‘Arminian’ or ‘non-Reformed.’
Throughout the last 500 years of Protestantism, each of these traditions has enjoyed times of ascendancy and also experienced periods of decline in popularity. Even among Baptists, both strands have been present since the beginning, and continue to vie for influence today.
To the consternation of some and celebration of others, Reformed theology has been on the rise over the last several decades. In 2009, Time magazine even included the movement on its list of “10 ideas changing the world right now.” Here are some of the new Reformers who have been instrumental in Calvinism’s comeback:
Though he is British, J.I. Packer’s impact on late 20th– and early 21st-century American evangelicalism has been profound. Better known for his writing than his speaking, Packer’s books and articles have re-introduced the spirit of the Puritans to new generations. While displaying theological meatiness, genuine and lively piety also comes through in his works, like the best-selling classic “Knowing God.” And his book “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” seeks to dispel the idea that Calvinists do not have motivation to share the gospel.
Together with Packer, R.C. Sproul was a key figure in the “Battle for the Bible” in the 1970s and 80s that produced an articulation of inerrancy that continues to moor many evangelical institutions. In addition to being a popular author, Sproul is also a pastor in Florida and founder of Ligonier Ministries that spreads his teaching through multiple media. Countless people have been introduced to Reformed theology through Sproul and his teaching that if God is not sovereign, God is not God.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the faithful ministry of John MacArthur plods on. He is best known for his expositional preaching ministry through books of the Bible. In almost 50 years at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Ca., he has preached on every single verse of the New Testament. His Calvinistic flavor is distributed through his radio program “Grace to You,” his conference speaking, and the school he founded, The Master’s Seminary.
Calvinism can be found in several different forms. Packer is an Anglican. Sproul is a Presbyterian. MacArthur is a non-denominational dispensationalist. The next, and arguably the most influential, of the new Reformers is a Baptist. John Piper left academia for the pastorate in 1980, serving at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis until he retired in 2013. His preaching passionately portrays a big and majestic God who is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Piper is known for re-applying the emphases of 18th-century pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards to today, combining rigorous biblical thinking with white hot religious affections. Piper’s most famous book, “Desiring God,” became the name of his ministry which furthers Reformed theology largely through free online content. Now retired from pastoring, he is still a sought-after speaker and is chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary, which he founded to further spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
If Piper is best known for directing attention to God’s glory, Tim Keller tries to help people see that the pinnacle of God’s glory is his grace in the gospel of Christ. Keller co-founded The Gospel Coalition, a broadly Reformed network of churches that advocates for gospel-centered ministry.
He has also done more than any other to highlight cities as strategic places for gospel ministry. Keller planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the center of New York City in 1989. After seeing dynamic conversion growth over the last 20-some years, he has just recently retired from the senior pastor role there. Now he works with the church planting center that spun off from his church and has helped start 423 new churches in the last 15 years. Keller waited well into his ministry before publishing much, but now he is cranking out about a book a year, many of which model how to winsomely engage today’s secular city-dwellers with the gospel.
Al Mohler has been the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) since he was 33 years old. In his book “Young, Restless, Reformed,” Collin Hansen called SBTS “Ground Zero” not only for the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but also the upsurge of Calvinism. Mohler courageously led the seminary to return to the Abstract of Principles, its original doctrinal statement, which not only reflects a high view of Scripture but also the Reformed bent that some claim was held by the founders of the SBC. Under his leadership, the denomination’s flagship seminary now claims to represent the largest number of students training for pastoral ministry in one place at any time in the history of the Church.
Mohler teamed up with friend and fellow Southern Baptist Mark Dever and others in 2006 to start a conference called Together for the Gospel, which has fanned the flame of Calvinism via bi-annual conferences. Dever also has pastored the historic Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., since 1994, overseeing its renewal. Out of that experience he wrote a book titled “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” that birthed a ministry by that name which seeks to build healthy local churches. Through materials, conferences, and internships, Dever has impacted many pastors seeking to reform the church.
While all the figures mentioned above are currently alive, they range in age from 57 to 91—not exactly young. Who will provide leadership for the next phase of this movement? Several new New Reformers have already crashed and burned.
Furthermore, there is a (white, male) elephant in the Reformed room—the list above includes no people of color or female voices. There are some signs Reformed theology is gaining traction in minority contexts, as seen in places like the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) led by Jemar Tisby. There are also Reformed conferences, blogs, and books popping up that are for and/or by women (e.g. Aimee Byrd’s “Housewife Theologian”).
In many ways, the future of the new Calvinism remains to be seen. But as a Calvinist would quickly remind you, “God knows, and he is in control.”