In one sense, the Reformed faith is simply the apostolic faith of the catholic church restored to her according to the Word of God. The sixteenth century Reformers had no intention or concept of establishing a particular “brand” of Christianity or a new “tradition” within Christianity, let alone a new church. They simply believed that the medieval church had strayed from the catholic faith and that God had called them to reform Christ’s one Church according to Christ’s own Word, rather than the teachings of man, which were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Hence one of the catch-cries of the Reformation period was Scripture Alone! Over against the medieval idea of earning merit before God by one’s good deeds, or receiving merit or indulgences from the church, they taught that salvation was By Grace Alone!, In Christ Alone, and Through Faith Alone.
A Comprehensive Perspective
The Reformed faith is also comprehensive in its teaching that God is the Lord of all of life. The Mosaic administration knew no distinction between the religious and the secular; no part of life was neutral for ancient Israel. The law of God ruled all. Now, of course, the grace of God has burst the banks of Israel; we no longer live under a political theocracy. However, God is still as glorious and sovereign as ever. Therefore we are to “cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2Cor.10:5). Jesus Christ is our Saviour; but he is the LORD Jesus Christ. And we are to be heavenly minded, like he, precisely that we may be of earthly use. Our religion is not to be a private matter. It is a trust, with which we must go into all the world. Sure, we are not to be of the world, but we are to be in the world (John 17:15f; 1John 2:15-17; 1Cor.5:10).
So the Kingdom, of which the Church may perhaps be called the Personnel Department, is very important in Reformed thinking. In response to the commission of the King, we can now with confidence make disciples of all nations (Mt.28:19,20) because we know that our Lord is on his heavenly throne, and he will continue to call his children out of darkness into his marvellous light. We can and must witness prophetically to all levels of our society and call people to a knowledge and submission to the one true God of heaven and earth. And the education of the Church’s children, the Lord’s children, in all its breadth – from Bible to the sciences, to the liberal arts, to Physical Education – must be Christian.
“We must not be pressed into the world’s mould, but rather transformed according to the renewing of our minds” (Rom.12:1f) for “whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1Cor.10:31). “For from him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Rom.11:36).
The Covenant of Grace
The Reformed faith teaches that Almighty God has entered into a covenant relationship with mankind to save him. That covenant was first made with Adam and Eve in Paradise (Gen.3:15,16), renewed with Noah after the Flood (Gen.9:8-17), and given its definitive form to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3; 15; 17:1-16. It was further renewed and developed at Sinai, at the time of David, and eventually by Christ himself in fulfilment of the promises recorded in Jer.31. Christ is the mediator of the new covenant (Mt.26:28); new, not in essence, but because under Christ, who came in the fullness of time, the era of promise (referred to in the Scripture as the Old Covenant) has given way to the era of fulfilment (the New Covenant). Sins are now really and definitively done away with, not just by promise (Mt.5:17-20; Rom.3:25f; Heb.10:1-22).
A number of important points follow:
First, the real problem for man is his sinful rejection of God and his laws. Man has to understand that his sin keeps him separate from the holy God of the Scriptures – hence the need to preach the righteous laws of God. If we do not understand sin, and the wrath of God upon it, how can we understand salvation (Rom.7:7-12)?
Second, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As there is only one God, so there is only one Saviour and one way of salvation in both dispensations of God’s grace (Rom.4; Gal.3:15-20; Eph.2:11-22).
Third, God is the one who both initiates our salvation and brings it into effect. He gave the covenant of grace unilaterally, not as a result of bargaining in which man contributed something from his side. In fact, man does not, and cannot, of his own initiative, seek after God. Neither can he earn a place in heaven by his own good deeds. On the contrary, he is dead in sin (Eph.2:1) and is naturally in a state of enmity towards God (Rom.3:11; 8:7). It therefore takes a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart, before he can understand spiritual truth (1Cor.2:14) and respond to the gospel call to exercise repentance and to put faith and trust in Christ (John 6:44).
The Five Points of Calvinism
These teachings are sometimes summed up in the five points of Calvinism (the term is derived from John Calvin, who systematised the faith of the Reformation period), although they were only ever stated in that manner 60 years after Calvin’s death in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). The Synod of Dort countered the erroneous teachings of Jacob Arminius by pointing out the following:
1. Man is totally depraved. This does not mean that he is as bad as he could be if God did not graciously restrain his sinful inclinations or that man is incapable of performing “good deeds” by our human standards. Rather, it means that every part of man’s nature and being is tainted and affected by sin. From God’s point of view, there is no part of man that is morally good or even neutral. Even the best of our actions will condemn us if God applies the standards and penalty of his righteous laws to us directly.
2. But God, out of his boundless grace and love, unconditionally chooses or elects a people to be his own out of fallen humanity. This is entirely contrary to what we deserve. By our lives, we earn only the judgement of God. But by God’s grace, and through the Saviour Jesus Christ, we are received into a relationship of peace in which we can call ourselves God’s children (John 1:12).
3. Christ laid his life down only for those chosen people of God and from now on intercedes for them in heaven (John 10:14,15; John 17:9).
4. The Holy Spirit works irresistibly in the hearts of those for whom Christ died since Jesus came, not merely to make salvation possible, but actually “to save his people from their sins” (Mat 1:21).
5. Those for whom Christ died and in whom the Holy Spirit has begun to work in a saving way, will, again by his grace, infallibly persevere and not fall away from salvation (John 6:35-40).