January 28, 2021

iMonk Classic: Ray Ortlund—Reduced to Jesus Only

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted July 15, 2008

MOD Note: Back in 2008, Michael found this good word about what it means to be “Truly Reformed,” from one who is. Follow the link to read the entire post.

From Ray Ortlund’s blog…

Whatever divides us emotionally from other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christians is a “plus” we’re adding to the gospel. It is the Galatian impulse of self-exaltation. It can even become a club with which we bash other Christians, at least in our thoughts, to punish, to exclude and to force into line with us. What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike. What proves that that gospel hermeneutic has captured our hearts is that we are not looking down on other believers but lifting them up, not seeing ourselves as better but grateful for their contribution to the cause, not standing aloof but embracing them freely, not wishing they would become like us but serving them in love (Galatians 5:13).

My Reformed friend, can you move among other Christian groups and really enjoy them? Do you admire them? Even if you disagree with them in some ways, do you learn from them? What is the emotional tilt of your heart – toward them or away from them? If your Reformed theology has morphed functionally into Galatian sociology, the remedy is not to abandon your Reformed theology. The remedy is to take your Reformed theology to a deeper level. Let it reduce you to Jesus only. Let it humble you. Let this gracious doctrine make you a fun person to be around. The proof that we are Reformed will be all the wonderful Christians we discover around us who are not Reformed. Amazing people. Heroic people. Blood-bought people. People with whom we are eternally one – in Christ alone.

There’s a lot of things I’d like to say, but this is so good that I’m just going to leave it alone…although I’m pretty sure some quarters of the blogosphere won’t be able to do so.


  1. “My Reformed friend, can you move among other Christian groups and really enjoy them? Do you admire them? Even if you disagree with them in some ways, do you learn from them? What is the emotional tilt of your heart – toward them or away from them? If your Reformed theology has morphed functionally into Galatian sociology, the remedy is not to abandon your Reformed theology. The remedy is to take your Reformed theology to a deeper level. Let it reduce you to Jesus only.”

    I certainly can. I can move around among other Christians who are evangelical or conservative (and I have). I know that true Christians exist in other denominations and theological traditions. I know I can agree to disagree with other fellow Christians on non-essential matters. I just don’t think this is possible, however, in a “church” that promotes same-sex blessings or denies the verbal inspiration of Scripture (which includes many mainline churches). For example, I would never consider a church run by John Shelby Spong types as part of the Body of Christ. They are heretics and Christians should shun away from damnable types like them.

    • Mark, if one of those “John Shelby Spong” types shows up around here, we’ll be sure to warn you.

    • Bufold Hollis says

      Speaking as an admirer of Spong, let me say that if I had to pick between being an

      (a) atheist,
      (b) Buddhist, or
      (c) neo-Calvinist, evangelical, fundamental, etc.

      then neo-Calvinism etc. would be my last choice. I’m sure that many liberal Christians would say the same. (Possibly many conservatives would feel similarly, if we substitute liberal Christianity for (c).)

      The notion that I–or anybody–ought to feel more of a kinship with other Christians than with non-Christians, strikes me as just an attempt to underscore the boundaries of Christianity. It’s the sort of thinking that keeps religious groups in existence for long periods–boundaries are essential for that, if awkward for social and family ties outside the group–but I see this as a concession to institutional convenience, not something to celebrate.

      • And, to your credit, that is likely what Spong would say. Unless you really wish to take scissors to the Bible (“bible”?), you’ll need to acknowledge, however, that there are repeated references to the Church (ekklesia) gathering together, being the Body of Christ, being one. The Body of Christ most definitely excludes atheists and Buddhists, who are, presumably, the body of Darwin and Siddhartha.
        You seem to bemoan the long-term existence of religious groups; are you a universalist, or any sort of theist? I do not recall Spong saying that Christianity should simply be merged with something else.
        Elsewhere on this blog you have referred to yourself as a liberal Christian, I believe. What exactly are the tenets of Christianity as you see it, and how do you understand Christ??

        • Bufold Hollis says

          A “universalist” believes that everyone will be saved, that no one goes to hell. I do not know what the afterlife is like, and do not see ‘salvation” or “hell” as being primarily about that.

          A “theist” is someone who believes in God or gods. I think the word “god” is vague.

          I am less interested in “tenets” than in culture and tradition (suitably vetted). I don’t see any virtue in belief per se, but rely on secular sources (flawed as they are) for my worldview and values.

          The historical Jesus is difficult to know much about (since information about him comes almost solely from later generations of religious fanatics). I see the “Christ” myth as a fantasized projection which the man himself would have found bewildering. I do not mean that the myth is something worthless, to be discarded–I don’t believe in the Trojan War either, but recognize the greatness of Homer. If there were “Reform Christians” in the same way that there are “Reform Jews,” then that is what I would be.

          • Buford Hollis says

            PS. No, I don’t “bemoan the long-term existence of religious groups,” I see them as a fact of life. Churches etc. are not going to go away, but they tend to take on a life of their own, and their interests as institutions often come into conflict with ordinary human decency. The solution is not so much to get rid of them (disorganized religion is even more of a circus) as to inculcate a more humane ethos.

          • I like your statement; “they tend to take on a life of their own.”

            I remember, when I was attending an Assemblies of God Bible college (more years ago than I care to admit), hearing about the results of a study that the AG had commissioned. The conclusion of the study was that the only reason for the existance of the Assemblies of God was to maintain the existance of the Assemblies of God.

            So yes, denominations, and even churches, can take on a life of their own long after they have outlived or forgotten their original purpose.

      • Mark, there he is.

        OK, now that we have that out of the way, please continue to talk. And welcome.

      • I hope that you will reconsider your a or b over c conclusion. I believe it has eternal consequences for you.

        • In Buford’s case, notice he phrased the question IF I had to choose. I believe he does identify as a Christian, so unless you take the position that non-Reformed Christians are not redeemed, I think you can rest easy.

          Me? I like Spong. If any theologian could have kept me in Christianity, it would have been Spong. Like I said, I don’t believe in miracles (of the grandiose variety) my mind doesn’t work that way. Stories, even stories of faith, must make logical sense to me. I’m probably not the only one who thinks that way. If Christianity cannot be made appealing to these groups, as it has been made appealing to other groups, then they will go elsewhere, either embracing other faiths or drifting into Agnosticism or Atheism as my partner has.

          It’s not that I lack faith, because I do believe in the Almighty, just not that He regularly interacts with us here in physical ways. Clearly he touches our hearts, minds, and souls and gives us the strength to follow his Law.

          • Dear cermak_rd,

            I know nothing about Spong. Would you share with me how he has had such an influence on you?

          • Bufold Hollis says

            To my mind, Christianity is not so much something I *believe*, as something that I *am*. I might as well try to change my race, or native language. If I become an atheist, then Christianity will be the religion I don’t believe in. And if I become a Buddhist, then my “Om Mani Padme Hums” will subconsciously take the form of prayers, while my affirmation of Emptiness will always have a little cataphatic asterisk by it.

          • I know what you mean. Before I read your comment, I was thinking that Spong would probably appeal to an atheist far more than Driscoll or Piper. I have read very little Spong, and much of it frustrated me. But he makes me think. Then again, I read Tillich, Schweitzer, and Neibuhr, so I suppose I should be strapped to the green wood along with Spong. In a world where Glenn Beck is lauded by Catholics, evangelicals and fundamentalists as a saint, I think being labeled a “heretic” must be a compliment.

          • Spong provided explanations for several of the miracles (remember I said my brain doesn’t tend to accept miracles?) in the OT and NT. He was the first theologian I ever read (I was very young at the time) who made it OK for me to not take Scripture literally and who encouraged me to look for the story and agenda behind the story. He also wrote some marvelous material pointing out how Christianity flowed out of Judaism even while embracing elements of Greco-Roman religion.

          • Dear Buford,

            I am confused by your statements.

            You seem to have a fondness for “liberal Christians” which you didn’t define, but you also state:

            I am less interested in “tenets” than in culture and tradition (suitably vetted). I don’t see any virtue in belief per se, but rely on secular sources (flawed as they are) for my worldview and values.”

            What would you call yourself?

            If you rely on secular sources and Christianity is something “I am,” would “Secular Christian” be close?

          • Dear cermak_rd,

            Thanks for the info.

          • Buford Hollis says

            I also appreciate the mystical side.

      • Honestly, I think a lot of things that come out of the pens and mouths of theologically liberal or liberal-sympathizing Christians are just spewed junk. Harmful to the soul and destructive for the church. Oh, btw, what are you doing here?

        • Well, I’m here for the conversation. I have learned some things from this community. Like the fact that fellowship is sometimes code for food. I have also learned that Egalitarianism is not just a passing fancy but has deep roots in contemporary Christian scholarship. Sometimes, because I’ve stepped completely outside the Pale, I can contribute a different viewpoint.

          Chaplain Mike, like iMonk before him has invited everyone in to his virtual pub.

        • Buford Hollis says

          Me? Just spewing junk, harming the soul, and destroying the church. How about you?

          • The last 50 years of Christianity as a whole speaks for itself. You can blame the people you admire the most in so-called Christian academia.

        • I haven’t been here long and I do not post often, but one of the best things about this place is the smorgasbord of viewpoints and opinions. If everyone on here was completely like-minded, this place would be awfully boring!

  2. Nice to see a Jim Janknegt painting on iMonk. Might want to give the artist a link love in your post though.

  3. So does that make Ray Ortland a Calvinist or a New Calvinist? 🙂

  4. Chris Moellering says

    I’m not reformed, but the point of the post is still valid. As a military chaplain “cooperation without compromise” is our mantra. I’ve have runned shoulders with lots of people who have expanded, enriched and challanged my belief. I would ocnsider myself much poorer for the lack of them.

    I agree with the spirit of Mark above, there are lines of orthodoxy. They are clear until I get close to them. 😉 Seriously, there are groups that I wish would cease to put “church” behind their name because I think they have lost it.

    However, there are plenty who I just have differences with that I appreciate, some that drive me nuts. It’s a fine line between a sort of Unitarianism and Pharisaism. I try to stay balanced, I really do, but it’s hard.

    • I’ve heard that some Christian communities are reconsidering their involvement in military chaplaincy because they believe they aren’t allowed to be Christian enough.

  5. “The proof that we are Reformed will be all the wonderful Christians we discover around us who are not Reformed.”

    What a positive spirit of good will! I think its a good place for the discussion to begin – or end.

  6. Slight digression, but would anyone agree that ‘Reformed’ needs to be defined? Reformed from what? Medieval Catholicism? So is the Catholic Church. Relevant to the Protestant Reformation? So are Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, etc. Or it is simply a a word that describes a species of nonCatholic theology that became widespread in 16th century Europe?
    It seems to me that Reformed and Calvinist have become synonyms.

    • I would agree. Lutherans are not “reformed”. Many teachings labelled “reformed” are not Calvinistic. For example, Zwingli’s teaching that the elements of communion are merely symbols is often referred to as the “reformed” view; however, from what I have studied, Calvin’s view of communion was far more complex.

      • David Morris says

        There was a session on views of the Eucharist at the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville. I was able to attend the last session (with the Lutheran and Zwinglian viewpoints). The Zwinglian (memorialist) view is sort of reformed in a sense, but I think it is also distinct from Calvin. You often get reformed baptists with memorialist Lord’s suppers…


      • Absolutely the Eucharist was more than just a symbol to Calvin—same goes for Baptism. The only thing he didn’t accept was the idea that the bread/wine were actually transformed in some way, but the real presence of Christ was not denied and he discusses these ideas both in the Institutes and in his commentaries.

        As to Reformed and Calvinist being synonomous, it’s unfortunate that many do see it that way. Calvin was a great writer, but even as an admirer, I find him often too harsh in his actual writing style. The “5 points” are not something that Calvin himself carried around emphasizing—he (and others) tried to present a well rounded view of Reformed theology and not narrow things down to a few sound bites. To me, Reformed Theology is best reflected in the reformed confessions (if you do want something boiled down), but to really understand it fully, I go to what I consider the three main historic sources—-Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin—and then to a modern source like RC Sproul for good teaching in today’s language.

  7. Hi Chaplain Mike,

    This is a wonderful post by the late Michael Spencer. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ ought to produce a generosity of spirit and a compassionate heart towards those with whom we disagree on issues other than the good news of Jesus which we should all agree on.

    Thank you for the gracious heart which God has given you. Your posts are a real blessing to myself and others.

    John Arthur

  8. Yes! Always going deeper in.

  9. the post above is what drew me to reformed theology. i grew up being taught the calvinist view of christianity. but it was a calvinist-baptist view. when my father got called us a pastor at the Christian Reformed church, i got a better perspective of Reformed theology. it was broader than the calvinistic-dispensationalist baptist of my early childhood. but i still got treated to the cruelty that stems from this type of theology. as i went to college, i explored different views. i was seeking. and got back to reformed theology. especially the doctrine of grace. or the TULIP. but i realized that many in my church who hold such views were farthest from being overwhelmed by it. they were judgmental. and i hated it!, so much so that i went to a charismatic church just to be edified. and had doubts if these so called doctrines were faithful to the Word. but as i read the Bible, the reformed view really made sense. so i resolved to act on my beliefs. being overwhelmed by grace. the words of Ortlund expressed exactly my resolution in my attitude towards other christians.

    and if i may say, this site has provided much in my admiration and appreciation for others who hold different doctrines. in the end, one’s doctrine must lead back to being reduced to Jesus. to be captivated by His life, to simply receive what He has finished on the cross and to live in the power of His resurrection. grace alone in Christ alone.

    and as i observed from others comments on this site, many hold this view too. even if they don’t claim to be “reformed”. which does not bother me one bit. and inspires me to declare “Jesus is Lord!”

  10. Matt, I don’t disdain any of those men. I think they are entirely sincere and have the best of motives. I just don’t agree with their theology any more, though when I entered the Evangelical stream it did bring me much comfort. I simply haven’t found any depth of life in it for about 15 years; felt like the theological train completely ran out of track. For some people there are issues that can’t be resolved by “just listening to this teaching” or “it’s right there in the bible- just read the bible”. Sorry to disappoint you. God opened a different door for me.


  11. alvin_tsf,

    thank you for your post. There are many theological traditions that proclaim the crucified and risen Jesus as our only way to salvation. I know we can argue all day long about this but isn’t that the gospel? Jesus crucified in our place and resurrected so that we would know that his death on the cross was enough? I know that your theology is important but shouldn’t we always examine where our theology begins? I think that reformed, lutheran, any group that is Baptist but not Calvinist, any group that is Calvinist and Baptist, any other Christian denomination that I haven’t mentioned, when we get down to it are we confessing the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus? I believe many Christian traditions do proclaim this not just the reformed. I also know that just because you are reformed you don’t believe these others are unregenerate because of not being reformed. I loved this post that we have read and know that a doctrine that preaches grace is so comforting when we are aware of what sinful creatures we are, and I believe that much of that doctrine brings such comfort. Of course, within any tradition there will be some who interpret doctrine differently, but we must always go back to what Jesus did on the cross some two thousand years and how that changes all who turn to Christ in faith of what he accomplished. Thanks for your comments. They are really encouraging.

    • RCran,

      yes, that has been my journey. the more i explored and read different views, the more i concluded that the Gospel is the essence of it all. and that it’s all about Jesus. and the grace God lavishes on us through Him. it is really amazing when i thinks about it and meditate on it. sometimes too much studying and analyzing distracts us from that wonderful truth. and because the “reformed” camp had always been known for its diligence in intellectual pursuits, it results in arrogance. that’s what i’e experienced. and absolutely destroys the heart. i am thankful though that Jesus is Lord over all the church. i am so traumatized by all this debates about doctrine that leads to hate. the Word should lead to a knowledge of God’s grace in Jesus. sadly, many calvinists do not reach that end. and many pentecostals i know are more overwhelmed by it.

      btw, most of the writers i hold dear are not from the truly reformed – Packer and Stott. i think they’re Anglican? so there.

      thanks also for your encouraging and thoughtful comments!

      • You are so right about being “traumatized.” I was a part of college group that was Calvinist and it was traumatic. I was told that if I did not go on their summer long growth retreat, I would grow stagnant and thus did not having passion for God and his word. It was devastating for someone who is 19 and a new Christian. Recently, I thought about having passion for God. I was told if I was not passionate then I was not a Christian. I am wondering how does one go about knowing how much passion is enough to be regenerate? What does passion mean? I could never understand how Jesus talks about faith the size of mustard seed, but my college church group talked about passion. I know that passion and faith go hand and hand but how much passion are we talking about? I finally left feeling totally in despair not knowing if I had enough passion to equate to saving faith. Wow, what a nightmare. However, this is just one small example. I can’t stress enough what graciousness towards others many of the reformed display. I want to tell my story but in no way condemn reformed theology which is so dead on in so many areas. We all owe these theologians a debt of gratitude to faithful examination of the bible.

        • i can totally relate.

          there were times that i felt really dry. or i had serious doubts. but i was afraid to be “condemned”. and not be part of the elect. so i kept it in my heart. and then i read the psalms. for myself without any commentaries. and it totally blew my mind! these people were literally wrestling with God. anger, bitterness and confusion. and then i read the OT some more. and wow! seriously flawed humans. but still saved. delivered. brought home. only then did Paul made sense. only then did i see that it’s not so much our passion but the Passion of the Christ that sets us free! it is finished.

          and because of that, i think the mustard seed of a life we have, if brought before the Lord can indeed flourish. by the Holy Spirit’s work.

          then i realized many more are in the same boat as i am. even now. so that’s what i’m passionate about. to bring the good news of Jesus to others who have been traumatized and afraid of being “left behind”. oh man!

          glad to be on this journey with all of you!

          • Alvin_tsf,

            You know the older I get, the less I feel the desire to obsess over theology per se. I am not implying no theology because clearly we all have a theology; it’s just that when I see Jesus in the bible he is only concerned about one particular theology and that is his purpose to come on earth. He wasn’t here to be a great example or a good moral teacher, but literally he came to rescue a fallen creation. That is his theology. He came to die. Not just any death, but a particular death for all kinds of folks. There are two things within the gospels that give me such comfort. The first is the thief on the cross. I imagine the suffering Christ in total anguish on the cross bleeding, dying, taking God’s wrath for us. Then, to know that through all of that anguish, he is up on that cross forgiving the sins of some guy hanging on that cross justly. I cry every time I read it. I have no clue what that thief’s theology was, but he knew that he deserved his punishment and still asked Jesus “remember me.” It is so beautiful to read! Jesus promises him an eternity with him based upon I deserve this punishment and “will you remember me” Jesus tells us his burden is light and based upon what I read in Luke regarding Jesus with that thief on the cross, boy oh boy he has the lightest burden ever. Why do we feel the need to move past the glorious death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins? We sit around throwing stones at one another screaming about how we are wrong or heretics (I am not denying that views that hold to a Christ that is non-biblical are wrong, it just seems that many of us fighting hold to the bleeding and dying Jesus that came back to life. What on earth is our problem? Oh yeah, sin. Jesus died for Christians too:)

    • Amen and Amen.

  12. Yesterday, I was remembering with some shame how in earlier years I attempted to ‘convert’ my catholic friends (albeit – I hope – gently).

    I now believe that it would make far more sense to encourage them in their spiritual growth within their given tradition. (Unless they are having specific issues within their tradition, in which case they need encouraging to consider the possibility that there may be hope elsewhere).


    “What is the emotional tilt of your heart – toward them or away from them?”

    is something that has seemed horribly lacking in some of the comments on this blog in the past days and weeks.

  13. I think relations between Christians of different kinds of churches, denominations, or traditions are progressing somewhat like racial relations have progressed in this country. Just a short while ago in American history, race was a much bigger deal than it is now. Most people strictly seperated themselves socially and relationally from people of other races. And deep down in many people’s hearts and minds was a very real belief that one race was really better than another. Then came the civil rights movement, which brought about a whole new set of laws prohibiting racial segregation and discrimination. But that didn’t really do a lot to alter people’s feelings and attitudes. It might have become illegal to discriminate or persecute along racial lines, but it was still perfectly legal to be a racist at heart and in belief. In my opinion, most of the real postive changes in the racial environment of this country have come since the civil rights movement in the form of actual relationships and friendships between blacks and whites. With the legal divide of segregation removed and the threat of violence decreasing, more and more people started crossing that invisible line and started forming relationships with people of other races. Of course, for many years, such relationships encountered (and, to some extent still encounter) a good deal of resistance and condemnation from both sides of the tracks. And to those who still hold to racial purity as something sacred, inter-racial relationships represent the most essential threat to that belief system or world view.
    I think a lot of the same dynamics and changes are happening in regards to denominationalism and my-brand-of-church-is-the-best attitudes. The simple truth is that most people are not members of a particular kind of church or denomination because they have thoroughly researched all the alternatives and have found that their church or denomination is clearly superior. I’d say, for most people, it has a lot more to do with factors like what tradition they were raised in, what church most of their family or friends attend, or what kind of church best alligns with their lifestyle than it does with any kind of comprehensive comparative study regarding the theology and ecclesiology of the various options. And since the advent of religious freedom in the West, church institutions have had to rely largely on a set of invisible, often unspoken barriers in order to keep the sheep in their respective flocks. One such barrier is the unspoken rule that leaving the church you grew up in represents a kind of religious treason, not just against the church institution, but against its people, as well. Another can be found in the way that different churches in a particular community or city often take more of a competitive stance toward each other than one of kinship and cooporation. Negative propoganda regarding other churches and traditions is spread in order to keep people suspicious or even fearful of other brands of church. And, in some cases, crossing these invisible church lines is considered a threat to one’s individual salvation or right-standing with God. Except in the most extreme cases, simple friendship with people who “go” to different churches is not seen as a threat these days, and even inter-denominational marriages are at least tolerated, though certainly not encouraged. What constitutes a real threat, however, are Christ-centered, deeply spiritual relationships and friendships across church boundaries — the kind of relationships that involve praying with each other, talking about spiritual issues together, and embracing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ on a level that would produce rebellion against church authorities if they were forced to choose. And if you get enough of this kind of deep, spiritual mixing and mingling going on — say in the millions — then you would begin to get a situation in which the only people who take the denominational, institutional, and theological divisions seriously are those with a real stake in those divisions (i.e. the shepherds), while the sheep just see other sheep. The invisible barriers would start to break down and cease to serve as a deterent to inter-denominational fellowship and even (perish the thought) inter-denominational worship.
    Regardless of how one might feel about such a thing, it seems to be something that is happening and which will likely become more and more of a reality in the coming years and decades. And, just as one might say that racial freedom and integration within a society inevitably leads to a breakdown in racial divisions, one might also say that religious freedom enventually results in a breakdown of religious divisions — or perhaps an increase in division to the point that the divisions themselves stop having any meaning or are no longer taken seriously. And, regardless of whether this turns out to be a good thing or a bad thing in the long haul of history, it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how church institutions and denominations adapt in the wake of this emerging reality.

    • I think you make many good observations. Your take on how folks end up in a certain church is, in particular, insightful. Your description of churches trying to “keep the sheep” also rings a bell with me.

      On your last paragraph:
      For the sake of unbelievers, I hope we still have decades remaining; something I question at times.

  14. “What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike.”

    I mentioned something similar in another post but this is the kind of gospel I would like to see preached more often in Reformed/Calvinist circles. Unfortunately, what I do see is the Gospel inextricably linked to Calvinism – the doctrine of election in particular. Spurgeon said “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.” and a lot of people take this to heart.

    • David Morris says

      Yes, that gets quoted a lot. But Spurgeon was converted in a Primitive Methodist Church due to the influence of a faithful old lady 🙂

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