“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight..” (Eph 1:3ff).
The modern evangelical church has, for the most part, neglected the classic confessions of the Reformed faith and the orthodox doctrines they represent. Few churches recite them as part of the worship service or teach them in catechism class anymore. They are rarely if ever referenced in preaching or in Bible study. Consequently, most evangelicals have ceased to believe or practice much of what they teach.
Definition of Reformed Theology
To put it simply, Reformed Theology is how the founders of the Protestant church understood the great doctrines of salvation. It is the theology upon which the Protestant Church was built. It is expressed in the great confessions of the Protestant faith such as the Westminster Confession, the Belgian Confession, The London Baptist Confession, the Canons of Dort, the Heidelberg Confession, the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles Creed. These documents explain the basic teachings of the Bible regarding such biblical truths as unconditional election, irresistible grace, the limited scope of Christ’s atonement, the preservation of the saints, the total depravity of mankind, justification by faith and the preservation of the saints.
For instance, the vast majority of evangelical Christians believe that people either accept or reject Christ based on the exercise of their own free will. But that is not the faith the Reformers confessed. In fact, that teaching was condemned by the church at the Council of Dort in 1619. The Canons of Dort say, “In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen.” (Canons of Dort, Article 6).
The Reformers believed it is God who chooses to save some people and to leave others in their sins based solely upon his own determination. The Westminster Catechism puts it this way, “All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ.” (Chapter 10.1).
In the same way that God chooses to save some, he consigns others to unbelief. This is very evident in the way Christ veiled the truth in parables so that many of his hearers were unable to understand what he said. Matthew 13 says, “Then the disciples came and said to him, Why do you speak to them in parables? And he answered them, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Mt 13:10-11).
On the other hand, Christ very plainly revealed himself to others, like the woman at the well. When she said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (John 4:25) Jesus’ response to her was very straightforward and unambiguous, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:26). He kept nothing hidden from her because she was one of his chosen ones.
The doctrine of irresistible grace says that it is not possible for those whom God has chosen to resist his will, nor is it possible for those whom he has not chosen to come to faith in him. The best example of a man who could not resist the will of God is the Apostle Paul. He was on his way to the city of Damascus to arrest Christians when Jesus suddenly stopped him in his tracks with a blinding light and a voice from heaven that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 26:14). Saul simply said, “Who are you Lord,” to which the voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” So Saul did what he was told. Later Ananias showed up in response to a vision he had received from God, and said to Saul, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may… be filled with the Holy Spirit.”(Acts 9:17). Then Saul arose, ate something, and was immediately baptized. Saul never took the initiative in any of these actions. God called him, commanded him, gave him back his sight, and filled him with the Holy Spirit before he did anything. He had been chosen by Christ and his only option was to obey. This is irresistible grace.
The doctrine of irresistible grace is expressed in Article 10 of the Canons of Dort, “But the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve God’s choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as God’s own possession. The Westminster Confession puts it this way, “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” (Westminster Confessions 10.2) Saul was a passive participant until he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Only then did he begin exercising his faith by preaching in the synagogue. (Acts 9:20). He could not resist God’s call despite the fact that he was a sworn enemy of Jesus Christ.
If it is true that God calls only some to salvation, then it follows that the sacrifice Christ made on the cross covers only the sins of those whom he has chosen. Those who have not been chosen still must pay for their own sins. The Westminster Catechism 10.1 says, “All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death.” This idea that Christ’s sacrifice covers only the sins of his chosen ones is called “limited atonement.”
Total depravity does not mean that man is incapable of doing anything good. It means that no man is capable of satisfying God’s righteous requirements. Romans 3:10-11 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
According to the Canons of Dort, “…all men are conceived in sin and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation.”
Reformed theology teaches that sin has so radically corrupted the human soul that repentance is impossible unless the Holy Spirit first imparts a new nature that can respond to God. Jesus told Nicodemas, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3, 5-6) Spiritual birth is necessary because we are all dead in our sins, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:4-5). Dead men cannot contribute in any way to their own salvation. Spiritual life comes entirely from God.
Justification by Faith
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.“
Most professing Christians agree that no one can earn his way to heaven. But many believe that anyone has the ability to “make a decision for Jesus Christ.” A number of evangelistic methods are based on this premise. Most include a four point presentation of the gospel with a sample believer’s prayer at the end. Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches that faith itself is a gift of God, as Ephesians says. John 1:12-13 affirms this truth, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13). This is what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemas that a man must be “born from above,” to enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:7) and when He told Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:16-17). That is why there are no “altar calls” in the New Testament. People always came to Christ as they were moved to repentance through the preaching of the gospel.
In Article 22, The Belgic Confession says that “all things that are needed for salvation are found in Jesus Christ” and that “those who possess Jesus Christ through faith have complete salvation in Him.”
Preservation of the Saints
When described from the perspective of the believer, this doctrine is commonly known as the perseverance of the saints. When described from God’s perspective, it is called the preservation of the saints. Preservation means that God keeps us saved. Perseverance means that we constantly pursue salvation. In either case, the true believer cannot lose his salvation. But the reason why is important. If salvation is entirely a work of God, then He cannot fail to bring his work to a successful conclusion because He is sovereign. He holds us in an unbreakable grip. As Paul says in Romans 8, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38). He explains his reasons for such confidence in the preceding verses. If God did not withhold his most precious Son but gave him up for us while we were still at enmity with him, why would he withhold any good gift from us now that we have been reconciled to him? The Judge Himself has justified us. We have no reason to fear condemnation.
The Westminster Catechism expresses this truth beautifully. Chapter 17.1 says, “They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.” The sovereignty of God is the reason why.
Why Theology is Important
These doctrines should inform our study of the scriptures. They provide the guard rails to prevent us from going astray and a context to help us reconcile seemingly contradictory verses of scripture.
For example, how are we to understand a verse like 1 Timothy 4:9-10 if we do not put it into the larger context of scripture? At first glance it seems to be telling us that Christ saves both believers and unbelievers, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” The doctrine of justification by faith alone tells us that only believers are saved. So in what sense does God save all people? And what is special about the salvation of those who believe? Well, we already know that the salvation of those who believe is forever. So from what are those who don’t believe saved? They are spared from immediate destruction by the wrath of God which would consume them if it weren’t for his patience and mercy. Paul explains this seeming contradiction in Romans 9:22-24, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy…?”
Prone to Error
God wants us to understand the Bible in one way and one way only – the way he intended it. That is why a “There are no wrong answers” approach to Bible study inevitably leads to error. It is also why we must respect the contributions of those great saints who came before us and whose wisdom has withstood the test of time.
The meaning God’s word does not evolve with time. It remains the same throughout the ages because God does not change. If Bible study produces novel teaching, it is producing heresy. Yet Christian bookstores continue to pump out the latest Christian fad from Church Growth strategies to Seeker Friendly to the Purpose Driven Church to Contemplative Spirituality to the New Apostolic Revival. You would be hard pressed to find Christian classics like the works of St. Augustine or Martin Luther or John Calvin or any of the reformers or Puritans on the shelves of most Christian bookstores. Yet the true church has been built on the shoulders of these great saints, not the promoters of the latest evangelistic technique or church growth method.