In early 2003, my wife and I were living in New Boston, Michigan, a “down-river” suburb of Detroit. While still in Wayne County, we could stand on our front porch and look over into Monroe County. We were committed to our church, an Assemblies of God church in Sterling Heights, Michigan which is in northern Macomb County. Even though we have moved almost an hour away, we believed that God had called us to be a part of that fellowship. At that time, I was getting near to the end of my undergrad schooling. After moving north from North Carolina, my theology underwent a major shift when I had a charismatic experience and spoke in tongues. Shortly thereafter, I began to attend this Assemblies of God church that better matched my theology, but I still struggled with the concept of a second baptism in the Holy Spirit. In my opinion, there just was not enough scriptural evidence. My theology had also shifted from being a “Calviminian” to embracing Calvinism and some modified form of reformed theology. I found myself in a unique position of being both reformed and some form of charismatic.
When my belief in Calvinism came to light, my wife and I tearfully were forced to step down from our positions as youth sponsors at our church. It was a painful time for both of us. We loved our church and we loved the youth, but rather than create division between any of the youth and since this was a much more important issue to the leadership of the church than I thought, for the greater good, we said good-bye. In my pain, I began to search for a community of believers that I could belong to and I stumbled on a message board for “Reformed Charismatics.” Since early 2003, I have been a member of this group and as much as a message board could shape someone’s beliefs, that board was very influential. This was a watershed moment for me; I began to try and embrace my beliefs and found that there were others like me out there.
For the past 7 years, I have remained a member of that board, but my beliefs once again began to modify. What I have discovered is that they have not changed so much in belief as they have in emphasis. I credit this change to many things, but first and foremost to simply being exposed, through my seminary training, to people who love the Lord with all their heart, but approach Him very differently than I do. I am now convinced that God’s covenant people are in almost every denomination across the board. To be reformed does not equal being Christian. To be charismatic does not equal being Christian. Indeed, there are many people who would shun being called either of these that remain true to God and his calling upon their lives in all sorts of denominations. What truly matters is what you do with Jesus. For many, this may seem to be overly simplistic, but what I have discovered is that you can theologize until you are blue in the face, but it all comes back to just a few simple things and this is the biggest of them all. There are a few other things that have changed.
First of all, I no longer believe that every believer has the ability to speak in tongues. I honestly do not know if I ever believed it nor do I think that the Scriptures support this belief. I do believe that some people are gifted with this ability and I am one of them. I do not flaunt the gift, but I do exercise it, being very careful to follow biblical guidelines in doing so, but I would not define myself as a charismatic. I even had a pastor friend of mine tell me plainly that I was not a charismatic so I have referred to myself less and less with that term as time has gone on. My concern has shifted now to a more broad concern that we allow the Holy Spirit to work intricately in our lives. The Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways and for us to shut out something that the Spirit might be doing is dangerous and simply bad theology. As the old saying goes (in a different context), “Leave room for the Holy Spirit.” I have heard of many calloused people who defined themselves as believing in charismata and those that have not get radically surprised by the Holy Spirit in ways almost too heavy to comprehend. Just because you lift your hands in worship or believe in instant healing does not make you a charismatic; it makes you biblical. Being a biblical Christian is something that every believer should strive after and having a biblical view of the Holy Spirit is part of that.
The second thing that has happened is that I have become less concerned with systematics. While I tentatively embrace all five points of Calvinism (because I believe they fit together like a chain), I am not a hard determinist on it because I see many holes in it and places in it that I just have so many questions about. I have called myself a “questioning Calvinist” because to say I am fully Calvinist would not be truthful anymore. I believe that humankind is totally depraved and completely dependent upon God for salvation. I believe that God unconditionally elects some of us unto salvation. I believe it is unconditional because it is through no conditions of our own. I am not exactly sure of all the intricacies of how the Spirit moves within us to affect our will and move it toward Christ; it is a mystery, a divine dance that I can only seem to look at theoretically as if from the outside looking in, but I know how that plays out in my own life. I am a dirty and sinful person who relies on himself way too much and shuns the Spirit’s work in my life way too often. I often, by my own volition, choose to accept something less than what God would have for me and that is sin. I know that my sin often blinds me because often I do not notice it until the light of the Spirit shines on it and reveals it. I cannot trust my pliable heart to reveal to me what I should do because my heart has proved so deceitful in the past that I can lie to myself. I am a wicked man that deserves only pain and suffering. It is through that pain and suffering that I see my need for God. I know that I need a Savior and I know that when Jesus went to that cross, he was thinking about me, in some way. I am not sure if He thought of me personally, but He certainly could have. But I know that His love caused Him to pour out His blood for all who would believe in Him. His grace and the Holy Spirit draw me to Him even though my heart desires other things. It is that grace that holds me close to His side even when I feel like I want to run away. I am not sure how systematic or Calvinist all that is nor do I really care, because it’s biblical and my experience has only served to prove it more so.
The third thing is that I now believe in the radical love of God. Oh, I believed in love before, but the deeper I went into studying the love of God, the deeper that I seemed to experience it. I am growing weary of people who talk about God hating people. When you study the Scriptures and pull out the passages that talk about God hating people, they can generally be explained away in the context of the passage. God certainly has the capacity to hate. He hates sin, but he looks upon his creation with love, a radical love that is so incredible and awe-inspiring that to experience it at the greatest human capacity is only like a drop in the ocean. Even though I have been a believer over fifteen years, I sincerely believe that I am only beginning to experience the love of God. What does that say about the love of God? It cannot be grasped by any level of intellect or education but only through experience.
The fourth thing that I now believe grows out of the first three things. Once you realize that the Holy Spirit cannot be put into a box, once you realize that trying to over-systematize theology is futile, and once you begin to drop all pretenses and swim in the love of God, you get real intentional about it. Your life cannot remain the same once this trifecta of the Holy Spirit, theology, and love converge. Little else makes sense than to serve the Author of this glory. Things fade away like chaff in a hurricane. Perspectives click and you become tunnel-visioned on the shear majesty of the One who dares to love you so much as to shatter your preconceptions of His deity. It matters not how you define yourself as long as you define yourself in Him. Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual disciplines become not just a mundane routine, but a moment, a possibility, an encounter, an opportunity to spend being intentional about knowing this God more and more and daring Him to take you to the next level.
As in 2003, I now stand on the eve of a watershed moment that will forever change how I view God. I have watched this moment approach, almost like watching a ship from a far off, getting closer and closer to the dock. As I have prayed more, sat in silence more listening for the Spirit, sought different ways to try and push myself in understanding, I have felt a bit of a rebirth, like a little pink baby completely dependent upon its mother for everything. I am broken, beaten and bruised from trying to do things the wrong way, for trying to fit myself into any other identity other than Christ. For my identity, I do not need labels that only serve as crude instruments for things that we cannot grasp. Labels can be helpful, but not in this context. The thing that I know, as much as one can know issues of faith, is that for me to live can never be anything but Christ, or it is sin, and for me to die, for His glory, would only be for gain. I fully agree with the hymn-writer: “My faith has found a resting place, Not in device or creed; I trust the ever living One, His wounds for me shall plead. I need no other argument, I need no other plea, It is enough that Jesus died, And that He died for me.”
God bless you all,
David G. McDowell