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. While Reformed churches historically have been staunch defenders of the doctrines of grace, at times the very grace that is proclaimed has not been evident in practice. The sad reality is that many people have experienced 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? Amid all the beauties of the Reformed faith, are there any legitimate criticisms of the Reformed faith that we should evaluate?

The Bible contrasts two very different kinds of ministries. In 2 Corinthians 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, 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 more clearly 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 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. 15:1–2). This ministry was killing the people in a practical way. 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 a 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 (Rom. 10:4).

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 Rom. 7:6–13). For the Christian, the law 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 in his commentary on John 20:23:

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.

Here Calvin 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, using the law as what Reformed theology designates a third use, or rule of gratitude, is the pastor using the killing power of the law in anger to correct a perceived lack of spirituality, or is he speaking to them as believers under the grace of God? Conversely, when the pastor is crushing with the killing power of the law to convict of sin, 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. Cultlike behavior is fostered. As particular interpretations of the law are pounded into the people, a guilty hold is fostered over them. The people are brainwashed to believe that if they depart from the tradition of the elders on any point, 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 and divisions are common. The use of the heavy hand of the law to justify one’s own position to the condemnation of everyone else tends to arouse the works of the flesh in the people. The apostle makes this case in Romans 7:8; 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 are 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 churchgoers 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).

These problems at times have become so bad that many people have walked away from the church altogether, or they have jumped to the opposite extreme, rejecting anything that they associate with being Reformed—discipline, commitment, doctrine, catechism, structure, evening worship, ties, coats, organs—as everything becomes 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 fruit 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 to me if I do not preach the gospel!” said the apostle (1 Cor. 9:16). Woe to the Reformed churches if they bury the very gospel they once uncovered.

This article first appeared on his blog, The Gordian Knot (, and has been reprinted with his permission.


Rev. Christopher J. Gordon
is the preaching pastor at the Escondido United Reformed Church, Escondido, California.