Reformed by the Word: One Church’s Journey

All reformation begins with the Word, because it is the Word that is empowered by God for the work that needs to be done[1].  I was asked to share what God has done in one small church in Arnold, MO.  And while we are not a model for anything, we have been the recipients of God’s grace that is mediated to His Church through His Word.

Paul tells Timothy that it is the God-breathed Scriptures that equip the man of God for every good work[2].  The work of reformation, then, must begin by equipping the preacher with a solid conviction that the Bible is God’s Word of truth, that it is powerful, and that it will, indeed, do the work.  As Luther said toward the end of his Reformation, “I did nothing. The Word did everything.”

I am grateful that my earliest experience of Christianity was forged at the time of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.  I was converted right out of High School in 1981 and discipled by men who loved the Bible.  They instilled in me the beginnings of that same love.   I entered Southwestern Seminary in 1985 at the height of the controversy over inerrancy at the Dallas Convention where I worked in the book store.  I heard the arguments in the hallways and saw how it rocked our school.  Yet watching the whole thing unfold drove deep within me a conviction that the Bible is God’s Word without mixture of error and convinced me that at the heart of the pastor’s task is a commitment to faithful biblical exposition.

It was during those years in seminary that I fell in love with the faithful resilience of Martin Luther, the passionate intellect of men like Jonathan Edwards, and the deep commitment to Scripture found in so many of our Baptist forefathers as reflected in Tom Nettles and Rush Bush’s book, Baptists and the Bible.  I was drawn to the teaching of men like RC Sproul and John MacArthur, though I didn’t know why at the time except that what they taught stirred my heart to love the truth. I’m grateful for that, because other things I received in seminary weren’t so helpful.  It was the beginning of the church growth movement which emphasized a pragmatic approach to ‘building’ the church on principles of business management and techniques of psychological manipulation. It was all about getting decisions and increasing the number of attendees by the use of these methods.

As a result, when I graduated seminary and entered the pastorate in 1991, I carried many of these practices with me.  The first thing I did was take our deacons through a study called “Equipping Deacons in Church Growth Skills.”  I showed video clips from movies like Sister Act with Whoopie Goldberg to show our people how to contemporize the church and repackage our message to get people interested. We had lots of games and activities, and I guess people liked it, because we began to fill the building. But it was all so shallow. There was little depth. We would run from one new program to another so that I found myself constantly pushing to keep people interested.  It was exhausting.  My wife said to me one day, “You are angry all the time!” “No I’m not!” I shouted.   But I was, because when it’s all about you having to manufacture something, it’s exhausting!  After a couple of years, I was near burnout.

One thing kept that from happening – that deep commitment God had given me to preach His word verse by verse through books of the Bible (though certainly I didn’t do it very well). I remember struggling through places like Ephesians 1 thinking, “I know what that seems to be saying, but it can’t possibly mean that!”  And yet, the Word kept pulling me forward, prompting me to question the things we were doing.  I became schizophrenic in my preaching.  One Sunday, I’d preach on the sovereign holiness of God, because that’s what the text said. The next I would try to entertain with a skit or other ‘clever’ innovation.  But the Word of God would not let go.  I didn’t know it at the time, but God was working on me. He was doing a work of reformation in my heart and mind; luring me out of my man-centered, programmatic little universe into the wider world of His Amazing Grace.  I found that the commitment to preach the Word was beginning to shape the preacher even more than the church.

In 2 Timothy 4:1-2, Paul charges young Timothy “in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who is to judge the living and the dead . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season.”   As men who dare stand behind the pulpit, we bear a solemn responsibility for what we preach.  It is not our pulpit.  It is not our church.  We don’t get to set the agenda.  When Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God,” he means the God who is present in every church service, every counseling session, every deacon’s meeting, every Bible study and every conversation. He is the Judge before whom we must answer for the way we treat His people and what we teach them.  That’s why James 3:1 warns that not many should be teachers, knowing we will incur a stricter judgment!  Since we must face this Judge, we must be careful to preach His Word, not our own.[3]

The realization that I was accountable to God for every word I spoke in His pulpit began to have a marked effect on my preaching.  He had, after all, given me a Bible rich with truth, treasure and power, and a command to preach it.  I was not at liberty to squander even a second on anything less than His unvarnished truth. As Paul told Timothy, I must “be ready in season and out of season.[4]” “Be ready” means “Take your stand!”  Stand there and preach whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s received or rejected, whether they applaud you or fire you, but preach the Word. Open the God-breathed Scriptures and trust Him to work through them!

For years I have kept a journal where I record my inmost thoughts and struggles. In November of 1997, as I was working through these things, I wrote the following,

“God speaks when His word is clearly and simply expounded in faithfulness to its Author and Guide.  The servant of God has no warrant to seek fame or notoriety, or reputation.  His task is to know God, to know God’s word and to speak the truth in love. Let God be God!”

Elsewhere that same month I wrote,

“The theological education of all God’s people is an imperative!  It is my imperative today:  to study to show myself approved; to teach the true knowledge of God; to train Christians to walk worthy of His calling; to proclaim the sure and ancient Gospel of Christ”

That solemn realization had a big impact on me personally long before it did anything for our church.  I now see that the first question we need to ask in the work of reformation is not,“How can I reform my church?,”  but “Am I willing for God’s Word to reform me?”   Only when it changes me, can it change my church.

As I said, my preaching had become somewhat schizophrenic – an uncertain trumpet sound!  But as I kept moving verse by verse through Scripture, trying to let it speak for itself, I began to see things more clearly. Chief among them was God’s sovereignty and how it extended even to salvation. That pesky passage from Ephesians 1:4-5 continued to haunt me, “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will.”  I began to scare myself. This wasn’t what I was taught in seminary!   I started to wonder if I was slipping into heresy.  The Bible seemed to be saying one thing – it’s all about God and His glory – but I had been taught something else – that it depended on me working the right programs. I felt caught between two worlds.

About that time I was asked to teach for Missouri Baptist University and had an interview with Dr Curtis McClain.  During the interview he asked if I held to the “Doctrines of Grace?”  I told him I believed that doctrine was important and grace was central, but I didn’t know what he meant by “Doctrines of Grace.”   He gave me a copy of Dr Nettles’ book, “By His Grace and For His Glory” and as I began to read, I saw how these precious truths of God’s sovereign grace were indeed the teaching of Scripture and the foundation of historic Baptist faith.  The more I read, the more I realized I was not slipping into heresy.   I was slipping into historic, biblical Christianity where God reigns supreme and saves for His glory through Christ’s finished work!  It was like a blast of fresh air.  I felt like I’d been born again again! I wrote in my journal for October 21, 1997,

Somehow in Christ, God has chosen to begin a quiet revolution in this sinner’s life. Truth – Gospel Truth – has become clearer as I sit at the feet of the great Reformation Masters these past months and imbibe from the same source as they the waters of the free grace of a Sovereign God in salvation.  Penetrate my soul, O God.  Renew my mind by your Word.  Grant me the same fire and zeal evidenced by Luther, the same clarity of thought seen in Calvin and Augustine, the same faithfulness and spiritual fervor evidenced in Edwards.  Let this awakening not be a passing fad, but a deepening and motivating conviction. If it is from you, let it lead where it may.  I am your willing servant by grace alone.  I am ready to declare myself on the side of truth in the Doctrines of Grace.  I am a Calvinist in the line of the reformation and the Gospel preached by the Apostle Paul.  Let God be God. Sola Fide; Sola Gratia; Soli Dei Gloria

Suddenly I could see the God-centeredness of God on every page of Scripture!  It was liberating!   It wasn’t about me!  It wasn’t up to me.  It was all about God.  And I couldn’t wait to tell my people because I knew they were going to love it too. Many, however, did not.  As I was soon to discover, reshaping a church from it’s man-centered assumptions to a God-centered Gospel is rarely done without opposition and pain.

At the end of 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul tells Timothy that his pastoral work must be done with “complete patience.”  That proved true in our case.  The process that began with me in 1995 wouldn’t bear fruit for several more years.  I tried to read everything I could find about the centrality of Christ in preaching, the purity of the gospel, etc. We took it slow at first.  I avoided the “C” word, knowing people wouldn’t understand it.  We didn’t start with classes on systematic theology (though they would come later) or frontal attacks against the invitation system (though I did remove the manipulative aspects).  More than anything, I wanted our people to know God. So, I kept the focus on God’s Sovereignty and man’s depravity. Spurgeon said, “Preach up Christ, and preach down man.”  That’s what I tried to do, along with a focus on a biblical understanding of conversion and the new birth.  I taught about regenerate church membership and church discipline (which the Reformers said is a mark of the true church).  Things seemed to go well at first.  I believed our congregation would see the truth of God’s sovereign grace from Scripture and embrace it with the same joy I had.  I think I under-estimated how deep depravity runs within the human heart.

Immediately after urging Timothy to preach with all patience, Paul warns him in that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”[5]  Principle among those myths is that of human autonomy.  “They will not endure sound teaching,” he says. They won’t put up with it because it grates against their autonomy and dethrones their sinful pride.

The words translated “sound teaching” mean “health-giving doctrine.”  It’s where our word “hygiene” comes from, indicating that which brings health.   It is the God-centered Gospel of grace focused on the finished work of Christ that brings spiritual health to a church.  But that Gospel doesn’t leave any room for human pride of accomplishment.   So, wherever a man-centered Gospel exists – and that is the gospel of this age – there will be conflict.  In my youthful arrogance I didn’t understand that. I thought I could bring them along through force of will. I was sure that if I just kept teaching the Bible, they would lovingly embrace these truths.

By January of 1999, questions began to be raised by some in our congregation.  In a deacon’s meeting, one of our deacons asked if I was a “Calvinist.”  When I asked what he meant, he really didn’t know. He just knew it was something bad. So, I asked specifically what I had taught that concerned him. Again, he didn’t know of anything.   He’d just heard this word used about me.  Clearly there was “talk” going around.  I decided the best way to answer his question would be to lead the deacons through a study. Like many Baptist churches, our deacons at that time served as  a kind of leadership counsel.  So, I bought them a couple of books, “Journey in Grace” by Richard Belcher and “A Southern Baptist Looks at the Doctrine of Election” by Robert Selph.   I asked them to read the books and then we would schedule a retreat where we could open our Bibles and study what Scripture says.  That was my plan.

Well, “the best laid plans of mice and men . . .”   My Journal entry for March 9, 1999 says simply,“Into the fire.”

The morning my wife saw “Frank”[6] enter the church carrying a Bible and the book on Election, she knew there was going to be trouble. Frank rarely brought a Bible to church, and he wasn’t a deacon, so why did he have that book?   I was in my study looking over some things when there was an urgent knock at the door.  One of our ladies was in tears.  She said she could hear Frank in the men’s class declaring, “The pastor is a heretic.  It’s time to get rid of him.  Are you with me?!”  By the time I got there, a crowd had gathered and accusations were flying. This was not what I had planned!  What surprised me, though, was that his biggest concern wasn’t really the doctrine of election, though that’s what all the yelling was about. But as we got into it, it became clear he was most upset about what I had taught concerning biblical church membership, conversion, and church discipline.  He had many relatives who, though members of the church, never came and gave no real evidence of conversion.  For him, the suggestion that such  might not be Christians after all was like stealing their salvation. They’d made a decision.  Who was I to question it?!  It was then, I discovered, that the real issues people are upset about are often hidden behind the noise of other things.  The “presenting” issue might not be the real issue at all.  Toward the end of the confrontation, he said, “You know what your problem is, Pastor? You don’t believe every Christian is really a Christian.” I reminded him that Jesus Himself said “not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of heaven”[7] (Mat 7:21).  But he wasn’t willing to listen. He stormed out promising to take half the church with him. That was the spark.

The next few weeks were chaos! The planned deacon retreat had to be called off, and instead, we invited Frank to meet with us and share his concerns. He refused. Yet, the charge of heresy continued to spread. People who had been close friends wouldn’t even speak to me, including a retired pastor who had once been a great support, but now began to urge people to flee the church.   I begged God to let me resign. I didn’t want to go through this!  But, as clearly as I’ve ever known anything, I knew we had to stay.

Because things were out of hand, the deacons called a special meeting of the church.  I would be given a chance to answer the questions that had been raised and then the church would vote whether I should resign or remain as pastor.  As you might imagine, everyone came to that meeting, including some we hadn’t seen for months, if ever!   My goal was to lay out the Gospel of God’s sovereign grace as clearly as I could.  I began by reminding them that our guide for all truth must be Scripture alone, not “what I’ve always believed.”   I warned them that a word like ‘Calvinism’ is a “bag word.”   I held up a McDonald’s bag and said, “Will you eat what’s in here?”  I then added, “Before you answer, you better check inside – it could be a hamburger, or it could be a tarantula!  But let’s open the bag and look inside.”  I then explained the Doctrines of Grace using the familiar TULIP, giving special attention to Election and the Nature of the Atonement, since those issues had come to the forefront. When I finished, I handed the meeting over to the deacons, left the room and waited for the vote.

To my surprise, those who voted were unanimous that I stay.  But a large group had abstained. Over the next few weeks between a third and half our congregation left, including half the deacons and Sunday School teachers.  Many spread far and wide the news that our church had fallen into the heresy of Calvinism.  I was a painful time.  I wrote in my journal for April 17, 1999,

The bleeding continues as former friends and one-time church members continue what can only be considered a campaign of slander against the Doctrines of Grace and me for preaching them. Each week brings fresh wounds and accusations, yet also, fresh mercies as God continues to uphold and support his servant. I suppose it is the complete ignorance that gets to me.  How willing otherwise sane people are to believe the ridiculous and how blind Christian people can be to the clear truth of God’s word – and resistant!  Our losses have been tremendous, at least 1/3 of our membership so far and half the deacons.  My name is slandered throughout the county. Branded a hyper-Calvinist and a liar (that one truly hurts!) Yet Lord, I can do nothing but look to you in faith and throw myself, my reputation, my integrity, my future, my family, my ministry, my all upon you!  You will uphold!  You will strengthen!  You will bring stability!  And then move us forward in accomplishing your divine will.  You alone do I trust!         

What got us through was the conviction that God’s word is true and the faithfulness of those who stayed with us.  I attended the Founder’s Conference that year and shared our struggle. Many prayed for us, and some even followed up with phone calls. That helped, but the Lord got us through. As the smoke cleared, we began to see great freedom.  The people who remained at Rockport wanted to be there. They wanted the truth of the Gospel. They wanted reformation.  We were able to begin the process, unhindered, of revising our constitution to bring it in line with Scripture.  We adopted a new, clearer confession of faith based on the Abstract of Principles that would lay the foundation for biblical eldership and church discipline.  Yet, don’t imagine it got easy from there!  We continued to have struggles. The process of basic reformation took another three years, and really it’s still going on.

Like shaping your soul, the work of shaping a church takes years of persistence.   You can’t do it in a five-year pastorate. It takes a commitment to stay in place, to love your people, to persist when it’s painful, to preach the Word with patience, and not give up in the face of opposition.  In the fifth verse of 2 Timothy 4, Paul gives four things that must be a part of a reforming pastor’s life.

First, he tells Timothy to be “sober-minded.”  “Don’t lose your head!” it means.  Don’t get swept away by the conflict itself. Don’t let it become about you.  They’ll try to make it about you. That’s a given. There will be accusations.  Some will even be true, because you’re a sinful man.  I had to repent of many attitudes during that time.  So, be honest about your failings. “Watch your life and doctrine closely!”[8]   Be accountable to other brothers. But keep your focus on Christ! Keep preaching the truth in love.

Second, “Endure suffering,” because there will be suffering.  Jesus promised that.  If you’re not willing to endure suffering and take some hits, you’re in the wrong business! You will be betrayed by some along the way. You will be slandered. Jesus was.  Paul was. You will be, if you are faithful to proclaim the truth.  So don’t be surprise when it happens. Don’t be shocked when people turn against you.  Because it isn’t about you, not if you’re preaching Christ.  So, keep the focus on Christ.   Keep pointing them to Christ.  And keep close to Christ yourself.

Our work of reformation took another three years to work out.  We made lots of mistakes along the way: we mishandled church discipline; we tried to make men elders who weren’t yet qualified; we had to rethink every aspect of worship, evangelism and missions.  Everything had to be re-examined.  It seemed like we would take three steps forward and two steps back.  Going through my journals, I see this dance: a victory here, a win there, followed by a big set-back with all the doubt that can bring. As late as October of 2003, I still wasn’t sure where this was going!  At perhaps the lowest point in ministry, I wrote,

I must admit that as a pastor I have been a complete failure!  I can preach. I can teach.  I can counsel and love people. But setting out a vision and getting people to follow, to “buy in” and give their lives to it – this I just don’t seem to know how to do!  I don’t know what my next step will be.  I seem to have lost any real vision for Rockport.. Lord, I ask one of two things: Either renew my vision for this church and give me the energy, joy, and stamina to see it through, or remove me.  Re-assign me.  Let me do something else I’m better fitted to do.

Yet, God worked.  He owned His word.  Little by little He began to re-shape the hearts of his people, but it took years for a truly healthy fellowship to emerge and begin to see people get it. And we’re still learning! But it has become a church that is a joy to pastor, filled with people who have a real desire to know and walk with Christ.

Third, “Do the work of an evangelist.”  Don’t stop preaching the Gospel. Don’t stop emphasizing missions.  And, if you’re not doing those things now, get started, especially if you’re known as a Calvinist.  You know the accusations: Calvinism kills missions!   Don’t let it!   Shortly after our fire began, a friend[9] counseled me, “Now that you’ve got a reputation as a Calvinist, make sure your church is the most mission-minded church they know.”   He said, it will drive the Arminians crazy, and shut the mouths of a lot of critics!  It did!  Even though our DOM at the time did not share our theology, he remained a strong supporter of our church over against our critics. He said the reason he did so was because of what he saw as our biblical commitment to missions and evangelism.

Finally, “Fulfill your ministry.”  Pastor, don’t forget to be their pastor. Don’t forget to shepherd your people. If there is conflict, many of them will be hurting as much as you are, perhaps more!   Many won’t understand what’s going on, they’ll just know they’re hurting.  And don’t forget that your wife and children are hurting too! No matter what you may be feeling, you’ve got to man up and give your attention to their needs. Your people need you to keep loving them, no matter which side of the fence they come down on. Remind yourself often, that even the ones who oppose you, are not the real enemy. Satan is.  Lies are. They are not.  Some are misinformed brothers and sisters who think they’re protecting something precious, but you’re still their pastor.

Some can be won by your Christ-like love, even if they don’t understand your God-centered doctrine. We saw people leave and then years later come back because they’d been loved.  I had one lady knock on the church door years later.  She’d said some pretty hurtful things, but as I opened the door she burst into tears, threw her arms around my neck and said, “Oh pastor, I’m so sorry.  I said some terrible things back then.  But God won’t let me sleep!  I know you were trying to lead the church as you thought best!  I want to ask you to forgive me.”   We cried and prayed together and assured one another of forgiveness in Christ.  It was a sweet moment.  There have been several like that.  And though not everyone will come back, my job is to love them all, no matter what!  Because we who believe the doctrines of grace, should be the most gracious people of all.   No matter how difficult things get – and they can get really difficult – let them find in you a truly God-centered man who knows and walks with Christ. Let them find in you the most loving, kind, gracious, Gospel-centered person, they’ve ever met. And let them see how it’s rooted in these doctrines of God’s sovereign grace that you cherish and preach.


[1] 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5

[2]1 Tim 3:16-17

[3]2 Corinthians 4:5

[4]2 Timothy 4:2

[5]2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

[6]Not his real name.

[7]Matthew 7:21

[8]1 Timothy 4:16 (NIV)

[9]Tony Mattia, Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church of Wamego, Kansas