Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
What is Reformed Theology Anyway?
by Dave Hatcher
Pastoral Position Paper
Reformed theology often gets a bad rap. It is explained as a dusty, dead system of thinking that a bunch of really old people with doctrinal chips on their shoulders thought up to impose their religion upon us free-spirited thinkers. This caricature comes, in part, from the slanders of those who oppose these doctrines at any cost. This is unfortunate. Equally as unfortunate is the fact that this caricature well describes certain individuals who hold to what they call Reformed theology. This paper will attempt to clarify the biblical case for and the beauty of Reformed theology.
The Genuine Article
Reformed theology is not a system of belief that Protestants of the 16th and 17th century created to differ with the claims of Rome. Zwingli, Calvin, and Luther, never talked about prescribing a new church, a new doctrine, or a new theology. They set out not to prescribe, but to describe what Augustine, the apostle Paul before him, and the Lord Jesus Christ before Him had set forth as the basic teaching of the Scriptures.
Neither is Reformed theology simply the 'Five Points of Calvinism', erroneously named since Calvin never wrote 'five points'. These five points deal with a portion of Reformed theology expressing its soteriology, i.e. 'how it comes about that we are saved.' The way the articulation of these five points developed in history illustrates this fact. A generation after Calvin, the followers ofJacob Arminius presented a remonstrance, or protest, to the Dutch legislature. A synod was convened to consider and answer the five points of the Arminians. Their answer stuck to the Reformed in a way that the question did not stick to the Arminians. However, beyond this historical accident, these five points flow out of an entire worldview which acknowledges the sovereignty and lordship of God in all things. Or, put another way, Re-formed theology doesn't stop with a mere five points. It is born out of God's desire to place everything, including His plan of salvation, subservient to His greatest pleasure-which is Hisown glory. This is God's ultimate goal,and He accomplishes it, while bringing sinful men to salvation through the means of His covenant.
Reformed theology is the theology of the covenant. The nature of the covenant is descriptive of the nature of God's character and His dealings with men. God initiates the covenant, God administers it, and God sustains its promises and conditions. From eter time, God acts on His desires withinthe context of His covenant relation-ships. The final purpose of these rela-tionships, as always, is the display andexaltation of the glory of God.
The glory of the covenant is that it is initiated by God. He thought it up. This is very important because without God's covenant with Adam, there would be no relationship with God and man. And after the fall, withoutthe covenant of grace, we would not ever be able to return to any communion with God. We would be lost forever in our sin and misery. "But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). Some might ask, 'Doesn't this refer to those of us who came after Christ? How can this be the same covenant that occurred before Christ came?' But Paul clearly states that the gospel was preached to Abraham (Gal 3:8), probably referring to His promises in Gen. 12:1-3.
One author said it this way: "the distinction between the Old and New Covenant is not so much a break as a difference between anticipation and fulfillment." God's promises to Abraham, and to his spiritual seed (thosewho have the faith of Abraham), is described to Moses as blessings "to a thousand generations." Certainly, the same covenant must still be in place, for we have not begun to near the thousandth generation. A thousand generations may not mean a literal one thousand generations, but it certainly does not mean ten or fifteen.
God did not first think of this covenant at the time of Abraham, however. This is where the doctrine of election comes in. Before the foundation of the world, God predestined all redemptive history. Before anything was created, God planned out the covenant of grace; He chose the elect and the reprobate, those who would be partakers of the covenant and those who would not. He chose in order that He might display His mercy and love to some, and demonstrate His holy wrath and justice upon others, to reveal His glory to all creation.
Understanding predestination in light of God's sovereignty and holy jealousy for His own glory sheds greater light and understanding upon the doctrines of particular redemption (which some call limited atonement) and irresistible grace. These doctrines also reveal the sovereignty of God in the administration and sustaining of the covenant. When Christ came to earth to die on the cross, He came to do something, and He accomplished what He came to do. He did not come in order to try anything. He came to administer the terms of the covenant. He came to die for His people. This is what makes the atonement both definite and particular.
Those who struggle with the idea of a "limited" atonement in this way do not understand that they also limit the atonement if they try to argue that Christ died for every last man and woman. They limit the atonement in its efficacy while attempting to broaden its scope. Every Christian who believes that some individuals are finally lost limits the atonement in some sense. But Scripture does not allow for limiting the atonement here. When Jesus died on the cross, he secured the salvation of His people. Our salvation was a done deal at that point; Christ did not die to offer us a possibility.
This means that as the gospel is preached, the Spirit goes forth to unregenerate hearts, hearts that never would choose because they never could choose. The Spirit quickens the soul, brings the dead spirit of man, dead in sin, into new life. When the man is born-again, he cries out in faith just as he cried for milk when he was first born. And, just as he had nothing to do with his first birth, so, he has nothing to do with this second. He cannot bring it about, and he cannot stop it. This is irresistible grace, and this is the administration of the covenant, predestined before the foundation of the world. God does His work in the lives of sinful men and women to His own glory. One author has said it this way: "Nothing can stop or retard the progress of the gathering of his elect people, the building of his church, the coming of his kingdom, spatially to the uttermost reaches of the vast creation of God, or temporally to the end of the ages." While Reformed theology encompasses far more than God's plan for the salvation of mankind, in this area of discussion, the invincibility of the grace of God and His plan for the conquest of the world through the proclamation of the gospel is most clearly revealed.
But this is not only the conquest of the world through the winning of souls. Reformed theology provides a good question to Francis Schaeffer's question-"How shall we then live?" Because God is sovereign in all things, it follows that we are to develop a full, biblical worldview. As his servants, we have the responsibility to subject every area of life, thought, and experience, to the Lordship of Christ. This is commonly referred to as the cultural mandate.
This approach is distinct to Reformed theology because we are commanded to live in the world but not oriented to the world. We cannot live as Chicken Little did, running around in a panic announcing the sky is falling. Nor are we to develop Christian ghettos, barricading ourselves in because it is 'icky' out there in the world. Rather, with great confidence in our sovereign King, we go out on His marching orders and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom of God, making disciples of all nations.
B.B. Warfield said, "He who believes in God without reserve, and is determined that God shall be God to him in all his thinking, feeling, willing in the entire compass of his life-activities, intellectual, moral, spiritual, throughout all his individual, soclal, religious relations is by the force of that strictest of all logic which presides over the outworking of principles into thought and life, by the very necessity of the case, a Calvinist."
In fact, Reformed theology has an effect on evangelism and missions that many might not expect. A common charge against Reformed theology is that the impetus to evangelize is often blunted. Some argue that if God has it "all figured out", if before the beginning of time everyone who will be saved is "already determined," and if this hyper-sovereign God has already predetermined all things, then it is senseless to go out and share the gospel. Similarly, it becomes inconsistent to try and change the world for the better. But this does not follow. It is the result of a cursory, rather than a mature, understanding of Reformed theology. It is also the result of man-centered thinking, as opposed to the God-centered universe in which we live. God has predestined both the ends and the means in regards to every aspect of His eternal plan. Understood correctly, these doctrines do not dampen the missionary heart or hinder the work of the gospel.
Men who believe in a sovereign God, and who believe that he uses the proclaimed gospel, work with great confidence, not in themselves, their techniques or mannerisms, but in the power of God. They expect Him to save a multitude so great that it will be said of Jesus-He came not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.
Reformed theology stands in contrast to any man-centered, or even salvation-centered system of belief. It is not dealing first with the issue of man's problem and how God and/or man is going to solve it (or try to solve it). At the core of Reformed theology is the declaration and exaltation of the glory of God in spite of man's rebellious cry to be the center of all things. It reveals God as the final and ultimate Judge of everything, who will not share His glory, even in the display of His mercy or wrath, with anyone.
Reformed theology does not consider itself a sect, or a choice among many of religious systems. Again, Warfield said that it holds itself out as "theism come to its rights, as the more pure religion." It is not grounded in the opinions of men, but proclaims itself to be based upon a thorough doctrine of Scripture. Reformed theology holds up the Word of God as its origin and final authority for debate. It does not consider itself to be a choice among many fine choices.