What is Reformed Theology?
On our church website, under “Who We Are”, it says that Tapestry Community Church was started by a group of believers who wanted “a church that stood in the historic Baptist tradition and in the stream of the Reformed faith.” As a result, I am often asked what we mean by “historic Baptist tradition” and the “Reformed faith”?
In short, we mean that we are baptistic in tradition and reformed in our theology. Baptistic in the sense that we believe and practice credobaptism as opposed to paedobaptism, and that our polity is congregational as opposed to presbyterian or episcopal. In other words, we believe that baptism should be by immersion and based on one’s profession of faith (their creed), and that the authority of the church should reside within the congregation and not be derived from outside the congregation. This is over and against paedobaptists who practice the baptism of infants based on their understanding of the new covenant community and how they understand the visible church relates to the invisible church (e.g., Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians). The aforementioned denominations would also practice some form of presbyterian or episcopal church polity. However, we are also reformed in our theology, which we share in common with certain paedobaptist denominations, such as Presbyetians (PCA, OPC), Christian Reformed Church, Dutch Reformed Church and, to a lesser degree, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Episcopalians. But what is reformed theology?
Reformed theology as a system of thought has its beginnings in what is historically known as the Protestant Reformation of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Beginning with John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and then coming to a head with Martin Luther (1483-1546), who is credited with lighting the match that sparked the Protestant Reformation by nailing his ninety-five these on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany (October 31, 1517), and then carried on by men like John Calvin (1509-1564), John Knox (1513-1572), and Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), the Protestant Reformation was a protest (hence, protestant) against certain abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a reformation in that the Reformers, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, and others, sought to reform the Catholic Church. They were not seeking to leave the church nor were they desiring to begin rival churches.
There were several abuses the Reformers argued against. Some of these were papal abuses, the false foundation of papal authority, the ecclesiastical captivity of the Word of God, and others.[i] However, a central tenant and legacy of the Reformation was the recovery of the gospel. That is, salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that salvation is a work of God alone, that unbelievers are dead in their trespasses and sins and that the work of salvation and regeneration (becoming born-again) is entirely the work of God. “With a starkly Augustinian understanding of original sin (qualified somewhat by Zwingli), the Reformers asserted humankind’s total spiritual inability apart from the renewal of the Spirit. On unconditional election the Reformation spoke almost as one voice.”[ii]
Among the Reformers, Calvin was the dominant theological influence with his publishing of The Institutes of the Christian Religion wherein he seeks to systemize and outline key doctrines from the Bible regarding predestination, salvation, and eternal security. Around the same time, many Protestants began rejecting paedobaptism (infant baptism) and exclusively embracing credobaptism (believer’s baptism). These became known as Anabaptists (re-baptizers) as they sought to re-baptize those who had been baptized as infants. Among the Anabaptists who held to Reformed theology as outlined by John Calvin, these became known as Particular Baptists as they believed that Christ’s death on the cross was a for a particular people, not for all people in general. However, in the year 1610, the followers of a man named James Arminius who rejected the teachings of Calvin, produced a statement declaring the same. In the 1618, a response was published by a council held in Dordrecht in the Netherlands, which condemned the teachings of Arminius, and outlined the following key doctrines regarding salvation: (1) the total corruption of human nature, (2) the unconditional election of sinners to be saved, (3) the definite redemption for those for whom Christ died, (4) the efficacy of the Holy Spirit’s calling to eternal life, and (5) the preservation of the saints for all eternity. These five points are what have come to be called Reformed theology.
The total corruption of human nature, sometimes referred to as total depravity, is the biblical truth that all unbelievers are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1, 5), have a heart that is wholly inclined toward evil (Jer. 17:9), are at enmity toward God (Rom 8:7), are not capable of pleasing God (Rom 8:8), do not understand the things of God nor do they seek for God (Rom 3:11), are blind to the things of God and to the word of God (1 Cor 1:18; 2:14; 2 Cor 4:3-4), and are dead in their sins from the moment of birth (Ps 51:5; 58:3). Hence, all unbelievers are incapable, in and of themselves, from pleasing God and from responding to the gospel (Jn 6:44).
Yet, we know that some do get saved. Some do come to saving faith in Christ. How does that happen? Ephesians 1:3-4 says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Thus, those who come to saving faith in Christ do so because they have been chosen, elected, by God from “before the foundation of the world.” Jesus, when talking about those who come to saving faith, says in John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Note that when we ask the question: ‘Who will come to Christ?’ The answer is: ‘All that the Father gives him.’ He says this again in vv.38-39, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Thus, there are certain ones whom God the Father has given to Christ and it is those who will come to Christ and be saved. Yet, the basis of God’s choosing has nothing to do with anything that is in us. The Bible is clear: “for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom 3:23). All unbelievers are equally sinful and in need of salvation. This is why the Reformers referred to this as unconditional election, because it is not conditioned upon anything in us or anything we do. Why God chooses to save some and not others is a divine mystery.
However, if God so chooses to save some, then why did Christ die for everyone if not everyone will be saved? Or, did he die for everyone? Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:14-15). He does not lay down his life for everyone, but for the sheep. He will then go on to say regarding those who refuse to believe in him, “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (10:26). Notice he does not say ‘the reason you are not among my sheep is because you do not believe,’ rather he says, ‘the reason you do not believe is because you are not among my sheep.’ In other words, only those who have been previously named as being among God’s sheep from before the foundations of the world will believe. The point is that Jesus lays down his life for the sheep--for his sheep. Not every person in the world is his sheep. Toward that end, regarding what Christ accomplished on the cross, the book of Hebrews says that Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:12). When Christ died on the cross, he “secured an eternal redemption” for those for whom he died. If Christ “secured an eternal redemption” for all people, then all people must go to heaven and no one goes to hell. Yet Christ said, “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matt. 7:13). Many will go to hell; thus, Christ could not have secured an eternal redemption for everyone. Christ’s death on the cross was a definite redemption for the elect, for his sheep, for those whom the Father had given him from before the foundations of the world.
Therefore, when God chooses to save someone, that person will be saved. They do not come to Christ kicking and screaming. They come willingly, but they most certainly come. Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (Jn. 6:37). He will go on to say just a few verses later that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (6:44). Hence, from eternity past there are certain ones whom the Father has given to the Son. Those whom the Father has given to the Son will be drawn to him. And those whom the Father draws to the Son will come to him and will be raised up on the last day. This biblical truth is often referred to as irresistible grace. That is, when God extends his saving grace toward someone, that person will be saved. They will come to Christ in faith and believe. God’s will is never frustrated. Thus, if he wanted every person in the world to be saved, everyone person in the world would be saved. God chooses to save some and not others. This is not different than what God did with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. He chose to be the God of Israel in the Old Testament, and not to be the God of Babylonia or China or South America. For thousands of years he allowed all other nations to go their own way and perish in their sins. He could have revealed himself to the other nations of the world as he did to the nation of Israel, but he sovereignly chose not to. This is God’s divine prerogative.
Therefore, since God chooses whom he will save and sent his son to die on the cross for those whom he has chosen, and then irresistibly calls those individuals to himself, then he certainly will not allow even one to perish. This biblical doctrine is often referred to as the preservation of the Saints (the Saints will be preserved) or the perseverance of the Saints (the Saints will persevere). In other words, once a person is truly saved, they cannot lose their salvation. They will be preserved in their salvation by the Holy Spirit and will most certainly persevere to the end. However, this has probably been the most abused and misunderstood doctrinal truth which came out of the Protestant Reformation. Many have taken this to mean that since salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, then once a person says the “sinner’s prayer” or is baptized, then they can live anyway they choose because they cannot lose their salvation. The Reformers, however, were quite clear that although salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, salvation is never by a faith that is alone. Genuine saving faith will always be accompanied by the evidence of a transformed life. Minimally, in the lives of those whom God saves, there will be a desire to attend church and to fellowship with the saints. There will be a hunger for God’s word and a desire to know the God who saved them. There will be a natural inclination to pray to God and worship the one true God. And there will be a desire to turn from sin and pursue holiness and godliness. Thus, a person once saved is always saved, if truly saved.
Thus, tomorrow while millions of families throughout the United States are consumed with trick-or-treating and ghouls and goblins, Protestant Christians, and especially Reformed Protestant Christians, should mark tomorrow as arguably the second most important date in the history of the church—the day the Church recovered the gospel—that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, according to the scriptures alone, and to God be the glory alone. Happy Reformation Day!
[i] “Reformation, Protestant” by D.F. Wright in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics), 2001.
*Photo by Meros (http://7wonders.uz/en/wonder/view?id=919). The photo is of The International Monument to the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. Pictured in the photo are reliefs of William Farel (1489–1565), John Calvin (1509–1564), Theodore Beza (1519–1605), and John Knox (c.1513–1572).
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