Grumpy Old Men & The Reformed Tradition
Where are all the young people going? Why do the visitors never seem to stick?  Why have there been so many fights in our church history? Unfortunately, these are common questions in the Reformed tradition.  In my years as a pastor, I have been shocked over how much antipathy there has been toward Reformed churches.  It took me more than a few years to get a handle on why the reaction has been so strong.  The sad reality is that many people have witnessed fighting, church splits, abuses, hatreds, contentions, jealousies, all undergirded by a hard kind of legalism within the confines of a closed community that demonstrates nothing of the joy of Christ.  What are we to think of these things? Are there any legitimate criticisms of the Reformed faith that we should evaluate? 

The Bible contrasts two very different kinds of ministries.  In 2 Cor. 3 the apostle Paul says that we are ministers of the new covenant.  The contrast the apostle is making is between the new covenant as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham which he calls the ministry of righteousness, and the particular phenomenon of the giving of the law on Sinai to Moses—that which he designates as the  ministry of condemnation.  The contrast is important because each kind of ministry produces its own kind of fruit in its recipients.

Nothing exposes this stronger than when Jesus came upon the Jewish community of his day.  This community was under the ministry of condemnation, and the bad tree was bearing bad fruit.  The Jewish community was a legalistic, self-righteous club only for those who conformed to the super-imposed interpretations of the law and the tradition of the elders.  No one could enter the club until there was complete conformity and uniformity. 
Full of self-righteous pride, the Sanhedrin condemned everyone else except themselves. The Pharisees would go so far as to condemn Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands properly before eating bread (Matt. 15:1ff). This ministry was “practically” killing the people. The Sanhedrin did nothing but fight over the minutest points of the law, and their whole shepherding of the people proved to be nothing but a heavy handed yoke of manipulation.  They were grumpy. There was no joy, no confidence, no hope, no freedom, only sorrow and guilt, and whole bunch of fighting and division—tragic consequences of a ministry that kills.  How different this all was from the ministry of Christ whose goal was to loose people from bondage and secure a joy that was complete. 
This has been a serious problem in Reformed churches. Many of the Reformed divisions are driven by a Reformed pastor or authority who has steadily and consistently delivered the ministry of condemnation to the people.  This kind of ministry is concerned only to bring people into conformity to the law of God with its heavy yoke. The grace of God revealed in Christ "who is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes", has been forgotten or is neglected.

When the ministry is unable to make this basic distinction, the condemning or killing power of the law is used to motivate new obedience (see Romans 7:6-13).  The law for the Christian no longer becomes a standard for grateful living, but reverts to a standard of obtaining one’s own righteousness before God—the very error of the Galatian church. This has the sad consequence of leaving the people under its heavy yoke and wondering whether they have done enough to really be accepted before God.  The pastor fails to create a sense of awe and wonder over the person and work of Christ who has fulfilled the law in himself for his people.  In this case, the pastor has forgotten the primary goal of gospel ministry and robbed the people of their joy in Christ. Consider Calvin’s summary of gospel ministry: 
Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favour by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace.
Calvin here notes that the principal object of all ministry is to lead people to confess sin and receive the free grace of forgiveness offered in the gospel.  All other pagan religions focus merely on correcting the behavior of individuals. 
Some basic questions are important in this light: When the pastor is treating the sanctification of Christians with God’s law (third use), is he using the killing power of the law in anger to correct a perceived lack of spirituality, or is he is speaking to them as believers under the grace of God? Conversely, when the pastor is crushing with the killing power of the law (first use), is his goal to lead the people to Christ to receive his forgiveness and grace? Consequently, what are the fruits that follow in the life of the congregation, joy or guilt?
If the ministry in question has not made clear that its primary aim is to bring a ministry of righteousness to sinners, the consequences are severe. Six kinds of bad fruits follow from the ministry of condemnation:

1.       Cult like Behavior is Fostered: As particular interpretations of the law are pounded into the people, a guilty hold is fostered over the people.  The people are brainwashed that if they depart from the tradition of the elders on any point of their tradition, they are departing from the only true church and endangering their souls before God.  In these environments, the church becomes its own kind of club. To really belong, one has to adopt the fine interpretations of the law as the hard lined pastor has forced them.
2.      A Martyr Complex Is Promoted: When the ministry is exposed for what it is, a ministry of condemnation coercing people with the fine points of the law for conformity, these groups love to retreat into a kind of martyr complex as the last ones standing on the truth, or the last “seven-thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal”. 

3.      The Law Itself Becomes a Rule of Self-Promotion and Pride:  As the pastor swings hard with the law to the condemnation of everyone else, the churchgoer actually develops a confidence in his own conviction and good record of keeping the particular commandment being addressed. This produces a kind of self confidence in the particular nuances of the tradition itself.

4.      Church Splits & Divisions Are Common: When the heavy hand of the law is used to justify one’s own position to the condemnation of everyone else, this tends to arouse the works of the flesh in the people. The apostle makes this case in Romans 7:8 that the law, when used to promote self-righteousness, actually has the effect of arousing all manner of sinful desire. As the works of the flesh are aroused in this way, the ministry is actually moving the people to the inevitable consequence of division since mutual love and unity is only promoted by those who have been deeply touched by the love of Christ in the gospel.

5.      Joy in Christ is Absent: True joy is a fruit of those who have been set free by the truth of the gospel. The ministry of condemnation in contrast produces a host of malcontents.

6.      A Bunch of Church Goers Remain Unregenerate: When the ministry of righteousness is absent, people are not brought into contact with a message that can truly give life.  You create a closed community of many who are not born again (See John 3).

The above problems at times have become so bad that many people ended up walking away from the church altogether, or they jump to the opposite extreme rejecting anything that they associated with being Reformed: discipline, commitment, doctrine, catechism, structure, evening worship, ties, coats, organs, as everything became governed by how it makes one feel in reaction to the legalism. This also has sad consequences for our young people as many end up leaving the church.

Reformed churches would do well to consider whether their history of ministering to God's people has promoted the fruits of the spirit or the works of the flesh.  If the latter is what people have experienced, it’s no wonder there has been such a reaction against Reformed churches.  We have a rich heritage in the Reformed tradition of the doctrines of grace. Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel, said the apostle.  Woe to the Reformed churches if they bury the very gospel they once uncovered. 


  1. It's hard for us not to let our reactions against what is wrong take us away from what is actually right. I pray that the Spirit work in Reformed churches so they have the joy of being what they are for, rather than always being what they are against. We have the most wonderful news to offer people! Let's not stifle it with bitter divisions and lack of joy. We have Christ, forgiveness, love, peace. What could be better than that? This article is refreshing.

    1. That's exactly right, Mark. There are certain things that belong to the core of what we confess and other things that do not. Sadly, the things that divide us often belong to the latter.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your article here and have studied this privately in depth. Your contrast of the ministry of death versus the ministry of righteousness that you refer to is missing the aspect and role of the Person that brings that righteousness, namely, the Holy Spirit. Second Corinthians 3 is one of my favorite chapters because it so clearly lays out the old covenant versus the new. What I believe is missing in Reformed churches is the lack of teaching (as well as practice) of what it looks like to "live in the Spirit" as Romans 8 spells out for us. Gratitude is a by-product of living in the Spirit. Spirit-less expression of gratitude is, well...legalism.

  3. Thanks, A.Z. The ministry of righteousness is the ministry of the Spirit, but you correctly observe the need for us to speak in Reformed circles more of what the apostle describes when he says that we "serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." Maybe that will be part two.

  4. A joyless, fruitless, legalistic church is why I left the reformed church. Not understanding that when one repents and believes one receives the Holy Spirit is problematic. Without being born again we cannot have the Spirit without the Spirit we are lost. Our good works, fruit and testimony flow from salvation as a result of His indwelling not servitude to the law.
    John Calvin was a legalistic despot so its not surprising that what flows from his teaching is a self actualization.
    P.s. It's the good news of the gospel not the bad news, which is how legalism presents the gospel.

    1. Mike Mans, in all fairness I think you were looking for a church that would better fit your lifestyle and thats why you left. Legalism is different then honoring the Sunday. Your life since the reformed church shows who you really are!

  5. "Without being born again we cannot have the Spirit without the Spirit we are lost." Love this. The new birth needs to be preached more, for sure.

    "John Calvin was a legalistic despot so its not surprising that what flows from his teaching is a self actualization." I reject this.

    I encourage you to read more of Calvin before making an off-handed comment like this. He has helped me in every way to understand the liberty that I have in Christ. Did you read his quote above? Thoughts?

    Maybe my post on legalism might be of interest to you. Sometimes I think this is loosely thrown around without an understanding of what it really is.


  6. Great article - very insightful. Thanks for posting.

  7. There certainly seems to be a famine of the Word in churches these days. Many of them and of all stripes.

    God will take care of those who are faithful to His Word. As many or as few as that may be.


  8. I agree with everything you write here, Chris. However, sometimes simply being faithful will earn one the label of legalistic, fundamentalist or grumpy. I'm pretty sure that's what a lot of people in the CRC think about the folks in the URCNA.

    Rob Schouten

  9. Rob, I agree, the term is thrown around way too loosely. I've been charged with it myself. But I just don't want to be legimately charged with this, and therefore its a warning for me too. Hope all is well. Thanks for commenting!

  10. My only question - What if rebuking the grumpy old men is actually to force them to succumb to the new legalism of 'be nice at any cost', the most deceiving kind of legalism?

  11. My answer: then you shouldn't do it.

  12. Chris Gordon, I would feel remiss if I did not take a moment to tell you I deeply appreciated this post. It is refreshing, like powder snow in the face when you are trying to wake up from a nap that went too long. I need to confess surprise and declare pleasure that it comes from a URC pastor. I was linked to it by someone who reads an inhouse blog I keep for the congregation I am currently serving as a Specialized Transitional Minister. The person told me that what you say is similar to what I have been writing, and I see they are correct. What you describe is a strong force in most of the churches of Reformed persuasion that I have any familiarity with. It is a virus that does not distinguish between Reformed silos, and in fact I see it in the Hutterites and Mennonites in the area as well. So, thanks. I may well share this post instead of my planned one for next week, it is so relevant. I will do so with full acknowledgement and links.

    1. Sorry, this was my second attempt to post, and in this version I forgot to mention that I am serving the Kingdom in the CRC.

  13. I really appreciated this post. You know exactly the fruit has been produced and how hurtful it can be. Thank you, sincerely.

  14. Really good article, Chris! Sadly, I have seen this a alot, and it's not just Reformed Baptists to blame. Some churches who adhere to the Heidelberg as well as the WSC are guilty of this. It's sheer death being there a lot of the time. It has become increasingly difficult to find a church whose Pastor understands the law/gospel antithesis. Many accuse those Reformed who adhere to it as "Lutheran" or "antinomian". They would do well to heed Calvin on this point. Meanwhile, I guess we need to give them grace....

  15. Pastor Gordon,
    Congratulations on getting your blog published in the “The Outlook”. I was surprised and gratified for the introspective honesty and courage of the editors to publish it. There are many reasons why people leave a church, Reformed or not, and legalism is just one of them. Legalism will also keep people in church; however, we do not want legalism, but liberty. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor 3:17). Liberty is understanding the end of that which is abolished in the old testament (2 Cor 3:13-14).