One of the most important things I know to do as a pastor is be as thorough as I can with prospective members about what the church believes. I try to clearly articulate as much of our theology as possible in our new members class because, quite frankly, most of our members do not come from a Reformed background. Then, when I say something from the pulpit or do something in the service that may go against someone’s long-held belief, the surprise is limited. For example, I believe in the baptism of covenant infants. When I baptize an infant I want the congregation to know why I believe it is biblical and respect that, even if some may disagree with it. It would be like me walking into a Baptist church and taking exception to believers only baptism, or walking into a Roman Catholic church and being offended at the mass. What else should I possibly expect? How dare Baptists or Roman Catholics worship in a manner that is reflective of their theology! Silly, isn’t it? It is inappropriate for us to take exception with a church when it is acting in accordance with their doctrine. We may vehemently disagree with the theology or interpret Scripture differently, but we should not be offended when the church is being faithful to its own biblical interpretation. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I have dealt with disgruntled people over the years who have faulted the Reformed church for being, well, Reformed.
The question this post poses can be answered a number of ways. Thankfully, there are many excellent resources that explain Reformed theology very well, but I thought I would offer some brief thoughts on the subject. As a pastor, I continually see the need to reinforce foundational theology for both church members and officers. It would be impossible for me to exhaustively capture every nuance of Reformed theology in this post (another reason why creeds and confessions are so important!), but I would like to offer five as a springboard to further exploration.
1. Reformed theology stresses the sovereignty of God.
Reformed theology is not founded upon a democracy (that would give creatures authority over the Creator), but on a holy and just King who sits enthroned above. His Kingly authority is absolute, irresistible, and infinite. He has created everything, owns everything, and has the final say on everything. The Lord answers to no one, yet speaks to us by Word and Spirit. He graciously pursues his people, though no one can fathom the presence of His glory. God is both transcendent and imminent, and He grants mercy entirely out of His own good pleasure.
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. – 1 Chronicles 29:11
Sovereignty is God’s rule over all things including, but not limited to, creation, providence, and salvation. This divine lordship is why we worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. God’s lordship is so comprehensive and powerful that everything He wills to do will be done, and no one can prevent God’s will from happening. This all-encompassing rule not only extends to miraculous events, but to every detail of daily life.
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.
The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; – Psalm 45:6
God does not require us to proclaim that he is God in order for Him to be God. His being is affirmed by Himself and is not dependent on anything. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes the Lord in this way:
God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth. In his sight all things are open and manifest, his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature, so as nothing is to him contingent, or uncertain. He is most holy in all his counsels, in all his works, and in all his commands. To him is due from angels and men, and every other creature, whatsoever worship, service, or obedience he is pleased to require of them. – WCF 2.2
This is what drives Reformed worship. To God alone be the glory.
2. Reformed theology stresses the sinfulness of man.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” This definition seems short and simple, but it is quite massive in its description. I think most people think of sin and something bad that they do, but that is not the entire picture. Scripture teaches that there is an inner sinfulness (original) that is at the root of external sins (actual). In other words, our heart is inclined to sin before we ever commit an actual sin. This is why, in many Reformed churches, there is a focus on the sins of the heart. We are not sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners, born with a nature enslaved to sin. The way I often try to explain this is by teaching that the actual sins we commit are really symptoms of an illness that emanates from the inclinations of the heart. So, if all we do is attempt to treat the symptoms without treating its source (the heart), healing will never happen. This healing can only come by God’s grace through Christ.
9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
– Romans 3:9-23
The apostle Paul is making a number of strong assertions. But for the purpose of this point, Reformed theology affirms that everyone is sinful and and we do not have the ability to make ourselves right with God apart from Christ’s gracious intervention.
3. Reformed theology stresses God’s grace.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
If God is sovereign and man is sinful, then redemption cannot be by any means other than God’s grace. If there is a Scripture verse that serves as the pillar for Reformed theology it is Ephesians 2:8-9. The apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew what he was writing about. He was a devout Pharisee, “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” who zealously persecuted Christians because he truly believed it was the right thing to do (Philippians 3:6). But then everything changed…
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. – Acts 9:1-9
Notice Paul’s conversion. He made no initial step toward God, never asked for salvation, in fact, he was going through life thinking he was pretty good, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:6b)“ God, however, entered into Paul’s life by sheer love. God transformed Paul’s heart and the one who was once a proud persecutor of the church found he had no room to boast, except in the Lord.
17 “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” 18 For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends. – 2 Corinthians 10:17-18
Here, again, we have the essence of Reformed theology. We do not commend ourselves before God, but it is God who commends us to Himself. If we do not commend ourselves, then it is all by God’s pure grace.
4. Reformed theology stresses grace of Reformed people toward others.
If God has bestowed unmerited grace upon us, then our only response should be to treat one another in kind. Reformed is not some static way of thinking, it calls us to live in a manner that reflects the truth of the Gospel. If we have been saved by grace, then we ought to live likewise.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. – Ephesians 4:32
The apostle Paul calls the church at Ephesus to Godly, grace-filled relationship. The motivation for such calling is always the Gospel, never guilt. This does not mean that Christians cannot have disagreements, but that even in such moments there should be a mature, Christ-like spirit that prevails.
12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. – John 13:12-16
It can also be said that we are to serve one another. Jesus served us by emptying himself, being born of a woman, yet remained without sin. Jesus came to serve and in doing so gave his followers a model of service to one another.
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:34-35
If there is any enduring characteristic of followers of Christ it is that they should love one another. Redemption in Christ is founded upon the Father’s love, so it stands to reason that the redeemed would continue in that spirit.
5. Reformed theology stresses Semper Reformanda.
Semper Reformanda means “the church Reformed and always in need of being reformed according to the Word of God.” This is a crucial point because some assume it to simply mean “always reforming.” That definition could mean all kinds of things such as that the church should move beyond its confession, but that is not what is being taught. Essential doctrines are not up for deliberation. This phrase is not a call to progressivism. Likewise, as much as our confessional standards should be retained, they are subordinate to the Word. I do not recall any of the Reformers using this terminology, but it is certainly indicative of the movement that was taking shape.
So how should Semper Reformanda be practically applied to the church? Very simply, we should return to Scripture to receive renewed inspiration on how to love people well, how to promote holiness and faithfulness, how to care for the marginalized and oppressed, how to consider our personal sanctification, and how to be called to generous acts of mercy (to name a few). We do not embrace this as a means of keeping up with the times, but because our hearts are prone to wander and we need continual reminders that the Gospel really is true.