The Protestant Reformation is one of the most important events in history. Far from being a relic of the distant past, the theology of the Reformation continues to have profound impact on the lives of many today. Whilst all Protestant churches owe their foundational beliefs to the Reformation, Reformed theology remains largely untouched and, sometimes, wilfully ignored by modern Christians. Indeed, until I was 21, my knowledge of Christian thought was extremely narrow; almost as if there were advanced parts of Christianity to which I was not privy, because studying theology was to be done by ‘those in ministry’. The theological food I was being served in my youth was filling, in that it answered my questions, yet it was bland and unenjoyable. I was satisfied, to an extent, with the answers to difficult questions, but I did not enjoy them – there was no richness or delight to be found. For example, I figured that the best Christians really had to explain the Trinity was “The Trinity is like how water, ice, and steam are the same substance but appear can appear in three different forms” or “Well, it’s not 1+1+1 = 3 but 1×1×1 = 1” or some other, similar response. “If that’s all there is to eat,” I surmised “then I’ll eat it, bland and unintelligible as it is and not complain.” However, years on, having meandered my way entirely accidentally to come to Reformed theology, I am no longer on a spiritual diet that is the equivalent of crackers and tofu but a luxurious gourmet all-you-can-eat buffet, full of rare filet mignon, spicy chicken jalfrezi, and warm apple crumble. Here are 9 things I’ve learned from Reformed theology.
My view of salvation was that it was a state that I had entered into upon making a choice to follow Jesus. We are fully able to make that choice, any one of us, and God is doing His best to save everyone, but we just need to accept His help. Once we choose to take God up on His offer, then we are saved. Jesus died for everyone, and everyone’s sins are paid for, you just need to ‘invite Him into your heart’.
But the Bible never talks about salvation like this. God is always the initiator. If He doesn’t begin His saving work in me, then there is no hope of me being saved! Once I found out that the Bible teaches that we hate God in our natural state (John 3:19-20 etc.) and refuse to come to Him, it became clear that God must first change my heart before I can choose Him. God must destroy our natural heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh before we can come to Christ. In fact, the imagery that the Bible uses is even more stark; we must be brought from spiritual death to spiritual life. God is not waiting for us to accept Him because we can’t; we’re spiritually dead! I was as active in my salvation as Lazarus was in raising himself from the tomb.
Predestination and Free Will
I used to just want the idea, and seemingly inherent contradiction, of predestination and free will to just go away. I wanted to pretend that terms ‘predestination’ and ‘election’ are never ever mentioned in the Bible (they are) and people who mention these terms are using a dodgy translation (they’re not). However, I needed to have at least some answer to this question of predestination. Romans 8 has always been a favourite chapter of mine…except maybe verses 29 and 30 because they had predestination in them so I could have no idea what they meant. So, I settled myself with what is the equivalent of bland theological junk food with phrases like “It’s 100% free will and 100% predestination, simultaneously. It’s just a paradox.” or, similarly, “They are like two parallel lines that meet at infinity” and other such phrases. I was satisfied with this until I read Romans 9 for the first time properly. My nonsensical phrases blew away like chaff in the wind, and my intellectual cowardice had been exposed. I wasn’t solving the problem of predestination and free will by holding to irreconcilable contradictions, I was fleeing from it.
I began to give some serious thought to this issue, and the only way I could ever get these two ideas to reconcile was to change the meaning of either one. Either, we’re not as autonomous as we think we are, or Paul meant something different than what I was assuming election and predestination meant. However, Reformed writers made me realise that nowhere does the Bible even presuppose and assume free will like I was doing. I was warping and bending the text to protect this idea of free will I had to defend at all cost.
It isn’t that we have no will, but that our will is not free – it’s a will in bondage to sin! The concept of a human will in which we are equally free to choose both good and bad is not a Christian idea; it is a pagan concept. We only choose the darkness because we love it; we want to sin so we do and we never want to choose God, so we don’t. Once I understood that, election made sense to me. How can I come to choose God unless He chose me first? I will never choose Him by myself if I am slave to sin. The Reformed faith teaches that because we are slaves to sin, we fully deserve God’s wrath and He is therefore under no obligation to save any of us. Out of His sovereignty, He chooses to display mercy to some, and gives justice to others; in neither instance is there injustice with God. Those who are the elect of God were chosen before the foundations of the world; a people set apart to display God’s grace and His mercy, just as Israel was chosen out of the nations. At the same time, God passes over others, repaying them justice and wrath as their deeds and unbelief deserve. This predestining of some unto salvation is nothing to do with anything God sees in the person, as the Bible maintains it is a gift from God.
It began to strike me as odd how people in the Church would pray for unbelievers. Phrases like “change their hearts” and “reveal Yourself to them” and “draw them close to You” are often used, in all different churches that have very differing views on how salvation comes about.
But I came to see that only Reformed theology was consistent with our prayers. If God is doing what He can to save people, what is the point of asking Him to do anything else? If God couldn’t override the free will of people, then what else could He do? But if God is the one that does all of the saving, without our input, then this makes sense! Since salvation is of the Lord, and He is the one who chooses only then can we pray that God would soften the hearts of those who are hostile to Him. I now know that I can pray for God to drastically intervene in someone’s life and for the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sin and turn, in repentance and faith, to Him because that is their only hope!
It must be simply stated that my view of the Trinity was very confused when I was a much younger Christian. No-one seemed to have provided a meaningful explanation of what we as Christians believed about the Trinity, and this was all mixed up with heretical analogies about water and fire and three-leafed clovers. The objection that the Trinity was contradictory because it’s 3 gods and yet 1 god seemed difficult for me to refute. Moreover, the person of Jesus seemed to me to be very well explained. He was the obvious one. In fact, if you were to talk to me at, say, 17, you might get the impression that I knew and loved this Jesus (almost as much as I loved myself) but be utterly ignorant that I believed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unless directly asked. It is not that I didn’t believe in the Trinity, but because my knowledge of who the Son is so vastly outweighed my consideration of the other two persons, I couldn’t say anything meaningful. Perhaps, especially in light of some Christian festivals I attended, I could say something about how the Holy Spirit made people speak in nonsense languages and violently shake on the ground, but I couldn’t find much of that in the Bible.
Yet, in the Reformed faith, I have found something truly trinitarian. Not just in name, but in core belief. Firstly, I now understand that the Trinity isn’t some inherent contradiction, but that in the Godhead there exists, and always has existed, one divine being in three united yet distinct, co-eternal and co-equal persons. The Father is neither created nor begotten, the Son begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son, each with equal glory yet they have distinct workings. In salvation, for example, the decree of election flows from the will of the Father as He bequeaths the elect to His Son, who purchases their redemption by His obedience on earth as a man when He lived, died, and rose again, and who with the Father sends the Spirit, to work in the lives of men and women, convicting them in their sin, and leading them to the truth. This is the trinitarian gospel and we can give thanks and praise to each person of the Trinity for their work in our salvation!
A great failing of the churches or parachurch activities I’d been involved in is that sin was always minimised to as to make it, not acceptable, but less offensive to ‘sensitive ears’. Words were even used that would make our sin appear almost harmless or accidental. Phrases like “Jesus takes our messiness” or “God can forgive your mistakes” were prevalent in how I formed the concept of wrongdoing against God.
This strategy was abysmally insufficient to help me understand how serious sinning against a holy God is. A mistake is missing your exit on the motorway, or spelling ‘accommodation’ with only one ‘m’. Sin is the breaking of God’s holy law; it is treason in the presence of the King. I would come to think things like “I really didn’t sin much today” whereas I now realise that I don’t think I have ever kept the commandment to love the Lord with my heart, soul, and mind. I constantly fail to love my neighbour as myself. I am often envious of others, constantly selfish, and devote myself to the idols of my life almost unceasingly. In fact, I am chief of all sinners (Paul only said that he was the worst of all sinners in 1 Tim 1:15 because he hadn’t met me yet) and before I realised this truth, I had no real urgency in killing my sin. As the Puritan writer John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you”. I only wanted some of the bigger ‘mistakes’ I had made to be taken care of by God, instead of realising that I need to constantly repentant of all of my evils that are utterly repugnant to the Lord and start putting my old ways to death so I can serve Him!
Quaint phrases and good ideas that ‘sounded right’ would often dominate my Christian thought. This is evident in my thoughts about free will that I have mentioned before and in other areas I am no different. It is amazing to me how much rubbish I manage to pick up out of the ether; things I have just assumed about Christianity because they ‘seemed about right’. But, because I did not understand the Bible’s true authority on my life my mantra became “I like to think of God as…” or “I don’t think God would…”.
Now, I can see that I was just creating a god in my own image. As Christians, we ought to be able to provide a justification for our beliefs in Scripture. The Bible is not just “Best Instructions Before Leaving Earth”, like it is some sort of manual but it is the Holy Word of God and should be the foundation of our entire worldview. It’s standards are absolute and its decrees and decisions final. The Bible is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. That means that no matter what I think God might be like, or how I think He might want me to act, if there does not exist a sound Scriptural reasoning for my convictions, then I am wrong. The truth is not found in my feelings and emotions, but in His Word. With this comes the obligation of discernment; testing the concepts of man, however good they sound, against the Word of God.
Creed, Catechism, and Confession
To be frank, I had never been told what a catechism was, nor had I heard of confessions of faith, and the two creeds that I did know were just things recited at communion services as part of the liturgy. I don’t think I had even heard that the denomination that I grew up in, the Church of England, had a doctrinal confession until I was around 20. In fact, the Christianity to which I held was almost entirely devoid of historical truth and the idea of setting out specific beliefs to which I hold, and building on men of great faith who had gone before, was entirely foreign.
Whilst I am still new, in general, to catechesis and confessionalism, I can now appreciate their importance in keeping the body of believers within doctrinal boundaries. Without confessional Christianity, we are wandering blindly in the dark. Perhaps we will find our way eventually, but more than likely we will go astray and will be ignorant of the monsters that lie in the shadows. The creeds and confessions exist to give a sound guide by which we may navigate the faith, whilst catechesis serves to help us remember these truths and teach them to others. Whilst all these resources are not infallible or inspired like Scripture, they are incredibly useful for examining, strengthening, and defending the Christian faith.
My view of the sacraments was, one might say, loose. Other than necessary components for the Christian life because the Lord commanded these rituals in memory of Him, I wasn’t really sure why we baptised or distributed the bread and wine at communion. Also, why did people care what the ‘proper’ way to administer these sacraments was? Isn’t it just personal preference? What if I wanted to have communion with crisps and apple juice, what was the difference, ultimately?
In other words, my view of these sacraments was so low it could have dropped though the floor. While Reformed theology has never come to a unanimous consensus to how we should administer these sacraments, it is evident to me that these parts of our Christian life are vitally important and our disagreements matter, even if they should not divide us. These are the signs and seals of the covenant of grace that God Himself made with man. Our baptism should be treasured because it should be an outward mark of our remission sin and our union with Christ, as true believers. At the Lord’s table, we should come and examine ourselves in the light of the cross, remembering all that Christ did for us when He shed His blood and broke His body and to spiritually receive and feed upon Him. In fact, so important are these means of grace towards us that the Bible says that, if we “eat and drink without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.” (1 Cor 11:29). These sacraments should be guarded and treasured in the hearts of every believer and we should praise God every time we witness a baptism or partake of the Lord’s Supper for His grace in giving us these signs and seals of His marvellous promises!
With a lot of modern church worship, especially those that strive to follow in the footsteps of the large megachurches around the world, the focus is very much on developing a feeling within the congregation – specifically in times of song. Some would go so far as to say it is emotionally manipulative but I think a more accurate term is emotionally driven. In fact, a lot of singing in praise felt more like a concert or performance than anything else. However, I was entirely comfortable with this frame of corporate worship as an immature Christian and I did not think much of it.
I never understood, for a long time, that there really exists correct and incorrect ways of worshipping God. Biblically, there does exists a category of worship that we can define as ‘unacceptable’ – just ask Nadab and Abihu. However, largely speaking, although the manner in which we worship was something I was challenged about first, it is the content of the worship that I continue to struggle with. The Reformed faith places such an emphasis not only on the Scriptures but in sound theology that a lot (not all, but a lot) of the modern praise songs come across as repetitive, shallow, and self-focused. It’s too much about us; too much about how our faith makes us feel, and worship should not be based on our feelings. It’s not a question of style, but about content. As the modern church, we have slowly embraced an affective principle of worship, rather than a regulative or even normative principle.
Finally, I now realise how important the ‘corporate’ is in our corporate worship. A quick look at Colossians 3:16 shows us “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our singing in praise should be from the gospel, for one another, and to the Lord. When was the last time a song at church taught you something that made you go away and study the concept after church, or ask your minister? When was the last time a song at church admonished you? There is a sense in which we must teach and admonish our brothers and sisters in the church, week by week, in the things of the gospel through our songs. This is just one of the many reasons why the Reformed faith considers the regular attendance of a local congregation of such vital importance. If I am gaining the same spiritual benefit by listening to hymns on my own and singing praise with my church family, then there is something wrong with how I view worship.
In essence, what the Reformed faith has taught me is how valuable the five points of the Reformation are, and how to live by them. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) – that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and has unique authority in Christian lives. Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) – that God saves us by nothing but pure grace. Sola Fide (Faith Alone) – that this grace in us is manifested in our faith, that gives us union with Christ, and the only basis for our salvation. Solus Christus (Christ Alone) – that this faith must be placed in the person and work Jesus Christ alone. Soli Deo Gloria (The Glory of God Alone) – that all we are, and all we do, is to bring glory to the God who saved us!