Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Doctrines of the Reformation
by Bruce Hollister
There are several bedrock tenets on which reformed theology is based. First, the reformers said that the Bible alone is the ultimate and final authority in matters of faith and practice. This means that the Bible is to be used as the final authority over all things - including the church. Because the reformers believed the Bible was the authoritative, infallible Word of God, all the opinions of men, the Church and society were to be conformed to the Bible. This was known as Sola Scriptura - Scripture Alone.
Many people think that theology is something engaged in only by deep thinkers with many years of education and training. In reality, theology is something all of us engage in on a regular basis. The word theology comes from the Greek word "Theos," which means God, and "logos," which means discourse or study. In other words, theology is simply the study of God. Since all of us think about and discuss God at various times, we all engage in theology.
But what is "reformed" theology? There are many different schools of theological thought. Reformed theology is one very definite system of theology. Reformed theology has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. Men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingly and John Knox believed the church of their time had strayed from the historical truths found in the Bible. These men and others led a movement to reform the church which ultimately led to a split from the Roman Catholic Church. The doctrines which came out of this reformation have become known as "reformed theology."Reformed Christians have many basic Christian doctrines in common with non-reformed Christians. This includes doctrines such as the Trinity, that Jesus Christ was both God and man, that it was necessary for Jesus to die to pay for man's sin, that the Bible is inspired by God, and that Christ will return again at the second coming. What, then, is different about reformed theology?
Once the Bible was established as the only rule of faith and life, the reformers were forced to concede several other crucial areas of doctrine that relate to salvation. The reformed view of salvation says that sinful men can only be declared righteous by God through the satisfaction of sin by a perfect substitute - namely Jesus Christ. Only Christ could pay the price for the sin of man in a way that God could declare man "not guilty" or "justified" in his sight.
The question is how can man claim Christ's substitutionary sacrifice as his own? The reformers found that the Bible taught that man's justification is completely an act of God's free grace. Sinful man has no part whatsoever in God's justifying work. It is by God's grace alone. If man could contribute to God's work then his grace would no longer be grace. This tenet of the reformed faith is known as Sola Gratia - Grace Alone.
How then does sinful man become a recipient of God's grace? The Bible teaches that salvation is by grace through faith. God's grace is extended to those who believe, or rather those who have faith. But what is it that the believer has faith in, and how does one acquire that faith? God declares the sinner "not guilty" when he believes the promise of God in the Bible and looks to Christ alone as the one who paid the price for his sin. Faith, then, is the means whereby the sinner receives Christ. The reformers taught that faith itself is a gift of God. This tenet is known as Sola Fide - Faith Alone.
Finally, the reformers believed that the Bible teaches salvation rests completely on the work of Christ. There is nothing that sinful man can do to contribute to his salvation. Christ's righteousness is credited to the sinner; he doesn't deserve that righteousness, he has nothing to do with that righteousness, but it is imputed to him according to God's grace. This tenet of the reformed faith is known as Sola Christo - Christ Alone.
These tenets of the reformed faith have been embodied in a system of doctrine that can be summarized as follows. First, the Bible is the inspired Word of God and as such it is without error, completely authoritative, and an entirely sufficient guide for what we are to believe and how we are to live.
Second, the reformers taught that God is sovereign. This simply means that God rules over His creation with absolute power and authority. He determines what is going to happen, how it will happen, and then it does happen. God's will is never frustrated or defeated by circumstances beyond his control.
Third, reformed theology stresses the work of God's grace through five basic points often referred to as the "five points of Calvinism." These doctrines of God's grace are:
- Man is totally depraved. This means that all humans are so tainted by the effects of sin that every area of thought and action is affected. Our sin is so complete that no one can truly know God or God's ways unless God works within us to lead us to do so.
- Because man is unable to know God unless he works within us, it is only by God's grace that we can be changed or "regenerated." God must do a work of grace in a person's heart in order for them to have faith in Christ. Since not all people put their faith in Christ this means that God elects to work in some people and not in others. This electing work is not done in some people because God finds some redeeming quality in them. God's electing work in man is "unconditional."
- Since God does not save everyone, that raises the question, "Did Christ die for everyone?" The reformers believed the Bible teaches that while the value of Christ's death is infinite (it was sufficient for all) that Christ died specifically for those God was to save (it was efficient only for the elect). This is often called particular redemption or "limited atonement."
- As totally depraved, man is resistant to the things of God. The Bible teaches that "Men love darkness rather than light." However, when God does a work of grace in a man's heart, that which was once undesirable now becomes highly desirable. The heart of man is changed and God becomes irresistible to him. We call this "irresistible grace."
- Finally, the reformers believed the Bible teaches that when God does a work of grace in sinful man, he will also carry it through to completion. He preserves us in our faith and prevents us from a full and final falling away from him.
These doctrines of the reformed faith cause "reformed" churches to desire to live by them. Reformed theology teaches that we are called to live out our faith in the world. We are responsible to work to reform all of God's creation for the sake of Jesus Christ. This means that we desire to preach the "good news" of Jesus Christ to a sinful world that God might glorify Christ by turning men from their sinful ways.
In addition to adhering to a reformed understanding of Scripture, the theology of New Covenant Church is also "covenantal." What does this mean? In it simplest terms, covenantal theology says that God created man to live in eternal, complete communion with Him upon condition of perfect obedience. This covenant of life forbade man to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil upon pain of death. When man disobeyed God, in his mercy, entered into a covenant of grace to bring man into an estate of salvation through Christ the redeemer. This covenant of grace is at work throughout history and can be seen in God's gracious dealings with man from the time of Adam until today.
Since the entire history of God's redeeming work points to Christ, this covenant of grace speaks to the mode of baptism. Just as Abraham's children were to receive circumcision as the sign of the covenant, children today receive the sign and seal of baptism as their inclusion in this covenant. However, just as Abraham's descendants were saved through faith (not circumcision) by embracing the promises of God, so too, baptized children are redeemed by grace through faith in the work of Christ. Until the day children profess their faith in Christ, baptism (like circumcision) is an outward sign of the special standing they have in the covenantal community.
Bruce Hollister was ordained as a gospel minister by Fellowship Bible Church (independent) in Joilet, Illinois in 1984. After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1976, Bruce attended and graduated from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana, in 1979. That same year he married his college sweetheart, S ue Brashler. Throughout the 1980s as Bruce served as an independent Bible pastor, he was becoming more Reformed in his theology and resigned in 1990. After four years of meeting with families in the Joilet area who also embraced the Reformed faith, Bruce approach the Presbytery of the Midwest in 1994 about his and the families joining the OPC. One year later on May 21, 1995, Bruce was installed as an evangelist of the presbytery to serve as the organizing pastor of New Covenant Community Church. Twenty-plus years later Bruce continues his faithful service of a flock that numbers nearly 200 communicant and non-communicant members.