What is Reformed Theology? – Its Beauty

The following is part of a series of blogs written for the Covenant Reformed Church website.

what-is-reformed-theologyWe have covered the nature of Reformed theology (hereafter RT) – it’s history and theology – over the last number of blogs. Now I want to explore why it is a such a beautiful thing. The following is a list of realities that highlight what makes Reformed theology so wonderful and imminently practical.

It has a rich history – RT beliefs were held in the church from its earliest days. The great Augustine (late 300’s) articulated the foundations of RT soteriology and theology proper as he debated with the heretic Pelagius. It was confirmed (though distorted) at the Synod of Orange in 529 and became the foundation for the understanding of salvation within the church from that point on. It was the continued twisting of these doctrines by the Catholic church that led to the Reformation and to Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, restating the doctrines we now identify specifically with RT (including the 5 Solas). They and many others furthered, and developed them through historical work, systematic work and above all biblical exegesis. RT pre-dates, Arminianism, and its articulation is spread throughout the centuries. It is so wonderful to have such a great history of faithful preaching, teaching, confessions and catechism, and examples of the Christian life upon which to draw.

It is, more than anything, biblical – The desire of RT is to be biblical. This means that RT starts with the exegesis of Scripture and ends with systematic reflection founded on biblical realities. RT is willing to follow Scripture wherever it leads. We don’t believe in God’s sovereignty, meticulous providence, election, compatibilist free will, etc., because we want to; in fact I don’t think that any RT theologians believe in these things if given a choice. We believe in them because they are biblical; because they are splashed across every page of Scripture. We don’t come to Scripture, as is typical of Arminianism, with presuppositions of what free will must be like, of what God’s love is that trumps everything, etc. We come to Scripture seeking what Scripture says, and only what Scripture says. RT is willing to allow for mystery; willing to not have to understand the ways of God and we are willing to allow him to be the Creator and us to be the creature even if it makes little sense to us how this relationship works sometimes. (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29; Romans 9:6-28 ESV)

John Piper’s attitude is typical of RT,

“I do not begin as a Calvinist and defend a system. I begin as a Bible-believing Christian who wants to put the Bible above all systems of thought. But over the years — many years of struggle — I have deepened in my conviction that Calvinistic teachings on the five points [Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; Perseverance of the Saints) are biblical and therefore true, and therefore a precious pathway into deeper experiences of God’s grace.” (See this video by Piper for more.)

It focuses on the gospel which makes it eminently liveable – RT recognizes that we NEED God to live; we need the gospel preached to us each and every day. Without God’s transforming work and power which comes to us through the gospel, we will do nothing but sin all the time (Romans 7). Knowing this, I am now freed from having to ‘live up’ to divine a standard that is unreachable. It frees me from having to battle sin on my own. It also frees me from having to look a certain way, act a certain way, talk a certain way, etc., in order for God, or God’s people, to accept me. RT recognizes that God simply calls me to live in light of the victory that Jesus won on the cross, asks me to embrace that which is already true regarding who he has made me, in Christ, to be, and asks me to live in light of it. God simply says to me, “Be who you are in Christ”. What a wonderful reality to know that I cannot do anything to be accepted by God, I need only be who he has made me to be and to live in light of the victory Jesus has won for me. What a wonderful thing to know that God is saving me, that he is committed to my salvation more than I could ever be. This is truly amazing grace!

These realities are summed up in the words of Paul,

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:28-30 ESV)

It puts the focus on the one thing that we need to be focused on, namely the glory of God in all things – J.I. Packer wrote, “The only answer that the Bible gives to questions that begin: “Why did God…? is: “For his own glory.” RT recognizes this as the most important reality for us, Gods creation. God chose to create for his own glory. He chose to permit the Fall for his own glory. He chose to elect some to life and to leave others under judgment for his own glory. He allows hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer and accidents for his own glory. Scripture is rife with references to this reality – Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 6:3; 42:8; 48:11; Romans 9:22ff; 1 Corinthians 1:29-32; 2 Corinthians 4:7; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 11, 14. Since this is God’s program for himself in the world, we must have exactly the same program (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:29; Colossians 3:17). Our lives are to be about glorifying God above all things, “whether in word or deed”, as he himself does.

It gives us confidence and comfort no matter our circumstances – The Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence gives us tremendous confidence and comfort, and it encourages our faith no matter what happens. Why? Because, RT affirms that God doesn’t just react to what people are doing or the messes that pop up in life. He isn’t a step behind, waiting for people to act in order for him to work out his plan and desires. God is not at the mercy of people, hoping and wishing they would do what he desires only to be disappointed by them. He is not adjusting his works and plan because we keep messing things up. No! God is, instead, “working all things” for the good of His people. (Romans 8:28-30 ESV) Because God is truly sovereign he orchestrates everything. Thus my life isn’t left to chance for a split second. Nothing surprises God, nothing unravels him, nothing throws him off, not because he knows it all because he’s seen it play out in eternity past, but because he’s actually in control of it all. He planned things to be the way they are, no matter what ‘this way’ is. This is a truly comforting and faith building knowledge to have.

It makes prayer for salvation and sanctification real, relevant and massively important – Think about it this way. If people have libertarian free will as Arminianism suggests, then God is truly incapable of changing someones mind or heart in order to turn them to himself. For to do that, he would have to violate, or at least significantly influence, that person and in doing so he would also violate their free will. For an Arminian, then, to pray for God to work in people, is to pray for the very thing that God cannot do.

But in RT, there is no such problem. We are commanded to pray. That is clear in Scripture. We know that our prayers are often the means that God uses to bring about things in our world. We are also commanded to pray for the things that are on our hearts, including things as normal as our daily bread. We are also to pray for the salvation and sanctification of others and ourselves, knowing that God can, will and does effect the salvation of people as he works to draw, regenerate and sanctify them. Only RT, recognizes God’s sovereignty in salvation and it recognizes that God is powerful to effect any change he so desires in any person he desires. So we can pray with the utmost confidence and faith that God will do as he desires, even though we don’t really know how God’s sovereignty works together with our ‘free will’.

Fundamentally, RT recognizes that, at its core, prayer is an act of worship, an act of getting our wills in line with his. RT  recognizes that no matter how hard we pray for something all of our prayers are prayed in light of God’s sovereign will which we delight to submit to above all things – “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9-10 ESV)

It provides the proper context for evangelism and discipleship – An argument I often hear against RT goes something like this – ‘if people are elect, then we don’t need to evangelize because God will save them no matter what.’ This is flat out wrong for a number of reasons. First, it messes up the distinction between the pactum salutis (the covenant of redemption in eternity past between the members of the Godhead) and the ordo salutis (the order of salvation that brings about our salvation in history). NOBODY is saved on account of being elect. Second, people are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10) and this comes by the hearing of the gospel (Romans 10:14-17). Thus the gospel must be shared and people must respond by faith in order to be saved. Third, Pauls example provides our example. He says to Timothy, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” (2 Timothy 2:10 ESV) Paul was confident in his ministry being a success because he knew that God would guarantee him success. He was willing to “endure all things” because of the knowledge that God’s chosen people were out there and that he must preach to them so that they would “obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus”. Paul doesn’t know who they are (nobody does) so he preaches to everyone all the time. Thus the Reformed distinctives of monergism, election, internal calling, regeneration, etc., are the reason for Paul’s evangelistic work and not a hinderance.

There are many more things I could say regarding the beauty and applicability of Reformed theology, but I will stop here. May God be glorified as you seek to live out the realities of Scripture reflected in RT.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

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