By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008
Trying to define the Reformed faith simply and briefly is like taking a snapshop of the Grand Canyon at 50 yards: inevitably, something is going to get left out. Even an outline of it, though, is better than nothing at all, especially in these days when the American church desperately needs a revival of Calvinism.
That word Calvinism is much abused. Some Church of Christ believers and Baptists, for example, claim that when we of the Reformed faith use it, we are only proving their accusation that we are following a man, John Calvin. They, however, say they are following God and the Bible alone. It is really hard to believe they can be so naive, though. They read books written by and hear sermons preached by leaders of their own group and use these “man-made” works to give them a better understanding of what they believe the Bible teaches. The Reformed do the same thing with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others. We believe their teaching is closer to what the Bible teaches than anybody else’s; we do not accept their teaching instead of the Bible. Only the Bible is infallible and authoritative; we just believe their teaching about it is superior to competing teachings.
The Reformed faith, then, holds it is the closest approximation of what the Bible teaches. It was expressed in part by Augustine, and came to full fruition in the teachings of John Calvin and the other reformers at the time of the Reformation.1 It was held to a greater or lesser degree by the Pilgrims and the Puritans.2 It survives today among those usually called Reformed, Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, Calvinistic Methodists, and many reconstructionists.
Every system of theology has some theme it revolves around.3 For example, Roman Catholicism revolves around the universal church; Methodism revolves around sanctification; Pentecostalism revolves around the Holy Spirit; the Baptist faith revolves around the new birth; Lutheranism revolves around justification by faith; Greek Orthodoxy revolves around union with the divine. The Reformed faith, by contrast, revolves around God.4 For that reason-if for no other-it should be taken seriously.
The Reformed share with most other Christian traditions a lofty estimate of the attributes and nature of God. In the Reformed view, however, God is even more highly exalted. God knows what will happen because He controls all things in the universe (Is. 46:9, 10). He does what He wants to do, and no one can stop Him (Ps. 115:3). He is holy (Is. 6:1-5), and hates both ungodliness and the ungodly (Ps. 11:5).
The Reformed Faith embraces Trinitarian orthodoxy: We believe God exists in three persons, the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. We believe God is a perfect Spirit (Jn. 4:24), but that in the incarnation Christ took on human flesh (Phil. 2:5-11) which He now retains, though in perfect, resurrected form. We believe that Christ was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death for the sins of the world, rose bodily the third day from the tomb, and ascended to heaven where He is now seated next to his Father.
For the Reformed, the Bible is inspired of God and “the rule of faith and life.“5 Indeed, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of sacred writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.“6
The final authority for “faith and life” is the providentially preserved Old and New Testaments, written originally in Hebrew and Greek, and now translated into the common languages.7
Everything necessary for us to know is found in the Bible, either in its express statements of in its implications.8
Most of the attention the Reformed faith receives from non-Reformed people concerns the Reformed doctrines of salvation. Salvation doctrine is only a part of the Reformed faith, but it is an important part. The Reformed beliefs include predestination and election (Eph. 1:4, 5), the full sinfulness of mankind (Rom. 3:10-18), Christ’s death to secure the salvation of his own people (Jn. 10:15), and the perseverance of Christ’s own (Phil. 1:6).9 The Reformed believe that sinners are saved totally by grace. Many other groups, like Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and many Baptists and Methodists, believe that depraved men have free will and cooperate with God in salvation; God does his part, and man does his. The Reformed are different. We believe that God does all of the work in salvation. The Father purposed our salvation from eternity (Eph. 1:4); the Son purchased our salvation at Calvary (Ac. 20:28); and the Spirit prosecutes it in time by his operation of regeneration (Jn. 3:5). He saves us not because of our works or what he knew beforehand we would do, but because of his grace (Eph. 2:8-10).10
The Reformed do not believe like many evangelicals and fundamentalists that men are regenerated after they believe. We believe that men must be regenerated in order to believe. If people can develop enough spirituality to believe, then why would they need to be regenerated? (2 Cor. 2:14).11
We are not, however, like some of the primitive Baptists who believe we do not need to preach the gospel for people to be saved. For God elects the means of salvation (preaching the gospel [1 Cor. 1:21]), just as he elects the people who are his own. We must preach the gospel, because the Holy Spirit uses it to convert sinners (Eph. 1:13).
We believe justification is by faith alone (Rom. 4:5; Gal. 3:6-8). When we are united to Christ in salvation, God imputes Christ’s perfect righteousness to our account. In other words, He treats us as though we are as sinless as Christ, not because of our own righteousness, for we have none (Phil. 3:9), but because He looks at Christ’s righteousness which he credits to us (1 Cor. 1:30).12 By faith, which is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8, 9), we appropriate salvation.
The Reformed believe that those whom God justifies, he sanctifies (Rom. 8:29-39). We do not believe those truly saved can “lose” their salvation, nor do we believe they can so fall away from God’s care that they live in a state of continual carnality. We do not hold with dispensationalists and fundamentalists that carnality is a category of believers, although we certainly believe Christians can be carnal.13 If professed Christians do not perform good works, they are only proving their faith is not genuine (Jas. 2:17-26), that is, they are not converted.14
The Reformed do not believe that one can attain sinless perfection or a state of rest from the battles with the inward principle of sin until they meet Christ at death or at his coming (Rom. 7:15-25). They do believe, though, that as the Spirit works in the elect, he produces progress so that the power of sin becomes weaker (Rom. 6:16). The means by which he sanctifies us include the word of God (1 Pet. 2:1-3), our resistance to sin (1 Pet. 5: 8, 9), the mortification of the deeds of the sinful man (Rom. 6:15-22), and personal tribulation (Jas. 1:2-4).
The Reformed believe God relates to man by means of covenant:15 “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.“16
For example, in salvation God promises eternal life on the grounds of Christ’s death to all for whom Christ died and who exercise faith (Jn. 3:14-18). Under the new covenant God forgives the sins of his people in that Christ bore the penalty for those sins and God writes his law on his people’s hearts (Heb. 8:6-13).
Further, God promises blessings to his people and to their children on condition of their obedience (Dt. 4:39, 40; 5:32, 33).17 Children of believing parents as covenantal heirs are brought into a special relationship to God (Gen. 17:7; Ac. 2:38, 39; 1 Cor. 7:14).18
Moreover, the Reformed believe the Abrahamic covenant must be fulfilled. Abraham must be father to many nations and kings (Gen. 17:4-8). The seed of Abraham are all those who place faith in Christ (Gal. 3:28, 29). Therefore, a multitude of nations and kings will one day join the church by virtue of union with Christ.
The church is an extremely important part of the Reformed faith. The Reformed are careful to distinguish the visible from the invisible church. There is good reason for this.19 Roman Catholics stress the visible church which they naturally believe is Roman Catholicism. They then claim that since the visible church is the only church, and since theirs is the visible church, the Roman Catholic church is the only true church. The Reformed argue that the church, which is Christ’s body, is not only the visible church but primarily all God’s elect children in the world and heaven (Eph. 1:22, 23; Heb. 12:23).
The church local and visible is composed of believers united for the sake of Christ to fulfill the dominion and gospel commissions. The church is Christ’s corporate representation on earth (Mt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 5:19, 20). Its commission is to declare the gospel of Jesus Christ and to bring all nations under the discipline of Jesus Christ and the word of God.20 The church should edify itself by the preaching of the word (2 Tim. 4:2), communion with Christ’s flesh and blood at his table (1 Cor. 10:16), and the affectionate exercise of gifts among the members (Eph. 4:7-16).
In the Reformed view, preaching is exalted.21 In some other views (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, for example), the minister stands almost as Christ Himself and delivers the grace of God to those who hear. On the other hand, among some Pentecostals and Baptists, the minister is seen as a “prophet”: he declares inspired words he believes God directly shows him. By contrast, the Reformed believe the minister stands in an awesome place before the people of God to declare the very word of God as found in the Bible. He must meet not only the highest spiritual qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7) but the highest intellectual qualifications as well (2 Tim. 2:15). This does not mean he must be scholar in the eyes of the unconverted. It does mean he should have a thorough command of the Bible, of illuminating books about the Bible, and of the language in which he preaches. He must declare not his own ideas but the very word of God. His preaching must then necessarily be expositional-that is, he must expound what the Bible is actually saying.22 But that alone is not enough. He must then apply that truth under the power of the Holy Spirit to the converted and unconverted under the sound of his voice.
The Reformed faith stresses the Lord’s table. It is there in partaking together of the bread and wine that all members of the families of the church remember Christ’s death (1 Cor. 11:24), gain strength for the Christian life (Jn. 6:41-63), and publicly profess their determination to follow the new covenant (Mt. 26:28).
The Reformed disagree with Roman Catholics over the Lord’s table. We do not believe in transubstantiation or that the table is a mass. We believe that the Roman view of the table is blasphemy. We disagree with Lutherans who believe Christ is physically with, in, and under the bread and wine. We disagree with most evangelicals that the Lord’s table is merely a memorial and does not give grace and strength to those who partake in faith.
We believe that Christians actually commune with Christ’s flesh and blood when they partake by faith (1 Cor. 10:16). The elements are never anything other than bread and wine, but the flesh and blood of Christ by which we have eternal life accompany the symbols.23
The Reformed do not believe Jesus is Lord only of Christians and the family and church. They believe he is Lord over all things (Eph. 1).24 We believe that society must be sanctified just like the Christian, family, and church must be sanctified.25 The Reformed believe in the “separation of church and state,” but not the separation of the state from God. We believe all political leaders are required by God to submit themselves to God and his word (Ps. 2).26
We disagree with the Anabaptist view that politics is bad and that Christians should stay out of political office and away from political processes.27 We believe that Christians should press the claims of the Lordship of Christ in politics just as they should in the family, church, education, business, economics, education, the arts, and every other part of the society.28
We believe that the church cannot fail in in its mission to Christianize the nations with the gospel and the word of God (Mt. 16:18, 19; 28:18-20).29 We do not hold that the church is “holding the fort” until Jesus arrives to rescue his people. We believe he accompanies his people wherever they go in their mission (Mt. 28:18-20) and that they will accomplish greater exploits than even he did while he was on earth; we believe that one reason Christ returned to heaven is so that his people could accomplish great tasks by his grace (Jn. 14:12).
We believe that Christ is presently reigning on David’s throne (Ac. 2:22-36) and will remain there until all his enemies are placed under his feet (Heb. 10:11-14).30 Thus we believe the church will be successful in its mission to preach the gospel and bring all nations under the discipleship of Christ’s word.31 We expect a future period of an overwhelming number of conversions32 (Rom. 11:11-29) and Christian civilization (Is. 11:1-11).
The Reformed are uncomfortable with the labels “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” They believe the fundamentals of the faith as strongly as any fundamentalist, but we believe also that fundamentalism has watered down the message of the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life.33 Likewise, the Reformed do not prefer to be called “evangelical,” even though we hold to the evangel, the gospel, just as strongly as any evangelical. We believe evangelicals have compromised the gospel message by toning down the truth that Christ not only died to save sinners but that he also actually secured their salvation by his death.34
Calvinism, unlike so many other Christian variations, is a life-system.35 It governs every area of life. Its task does not end when the church meeting has concluded Sunday; it has only begun. This is one of the reasons we of the Reformed faith believe we-I should say Christ working through us-will win in history. The first reason we have such confidence is that we believe the Bible promises such victory. But the second reason is that Calvinism is the only truly comprehensive Christian scheme combatting Satan’s kingdom. Other groups fight selectively; Calvinism fights on all fronts. By the grace of God, it will fight Satan’s kingdom in every sphere until all foes are placed under Christ’s feet. Its goal is expressed simply but powerfully in the statement of Abraham Kuyper, former prime minister of the Netherlands and one of the greatest defenders of Calvinism:
One desire has been the ruling passion of my life. One high motive has acted like a spur upon my mind and soul. And sooner than that I should seek escape from the sacred necessity that is laid upon me, let the breath of life fail me. It is this: That in spite of all worldly opposition, God’s holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for the good of the people; to carve as it were in the conscience of the nation the ordinances of the Lord, to which Bible and creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again to God.36
1 John Richard de Witt, What is the Reformed Faith? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), 3, 4; Benjamin Warfield, “Calvinism,” in Calvin and Augustine (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956), 287-300.
2 Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, John Woodbridge, The Gospel in America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 22-28.
3 Of course, somebody may claim true theology (theirs!) is not a system. But if they do, they do not understand that their system is not to have a system, which is a system!
4 H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1960 ed.), 32, 33.
5 Westminster Confession, chap. I, sec. II.
6 idem., sec. X.
7 ibid., sec. VIII. Those holding the Westminster Confession do not believe the ultimate authority is the “original autographs” but the providentially preserved Hebrew and Greek as used in the church. They believe that faithful translations function as the word of God in the believing community. See Theodore Letis, “The Protestant Dogmaticians and the Late Princeton School on the Status of the Sacred Apographa,” The Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, Spring, 1990, 16-42.
8 Westminster Confession, loc. cit., VI.
9 A.A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (London: Thomas Nelson, 1886), ch. XIX-XXXVI.
10 Charles Spurgeon, Election (Choteau, MT: Gospel Mission Press, 1981), 14.
11 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 89.
12 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , trans. John Allen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), book III, ch. XI.
13 Ernest C. Reisinger, What Should We Think of “The Carnal Christian”? (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978).
14 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand rapids: Zondervan, 1988).
15 O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980).
16 Westminster Confession, chap. VII, sec. I.
17 Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).
18 Louis Berkhof, Manual of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933), 165, 166.
19 William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books , 1991), 13-20.
20 Kenneth Gentry, The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, TX: Institute of Christian Economics, 1990).
21 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preachers and Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971).
22 Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), ch. 1.
23 Calvin, op. cit., book IV, ch. XVII.
24 R.J. Rushdoony, “Box Theology,” in The Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 181-185.
25 Gary North and Gary DeMar, Christian Reconstruction: What It Is, What It Isn’t (Tyler, TX: Institute of Christian Economics, 1991), 28-32.
26 William Symington, Messiah the Prince (Edmonton, Alberta: Still Waters Revival Books, 1990 ed.).
27 Andrew Sandlin, “A Critique of Christian Nontheonomic Conceptions of Civil Government,” Calvinism Today, April, 1992, 10-14.
28 R. J. Rushdoony, Law and Society (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1986); Gary North, ed., Foundations of Christian Scholarship (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976).
29 Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (no location: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975).
30 Greg Bahnsen and Kenneth Gentry, House Divided (Tyler, TX: Institute of Christian Economics, 1989), part 2.
31 R. J. Rushdoony, God’s Plan For Victory (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1980); Kenneth Gentry, idem.
32 John Murray, Romans: The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968 one-volume ed.), 2:75-103.
33 Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947); Andrew Sandlin, “The Neo-Fundamentalistic Evangelism, RIP,” Biblical Editor, Summer, 1990, 1f.
34 John H. Gerstner, “Theological Boundaries: The Reformed Perspective,” in David F. Wells and John D. Woodbridge, The Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977 ed.), 21-37.
35 Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), ch. 1 and passim.
36 idem., 3.
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