What is Reformed Theology?

The Protestant Reformation occurred in the 1500's. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church had cluttered and contradicted the Bible's teaching. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and many, many others sought to realign the church's faith with Scripture alone. All of today's Protestant denominations (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.) owe their existence to this Reformation. Reformed Theology refers to important Biblical teachings that contributed to and followed from the Reformation. It is most commonly associated with 1) the Five Solas, 2) Calvinism, 3) Covenant Theology, and 4) Confessionalism.

Five Solas of the Reformation

For simplicity's sake, preachers often boil the Reformation message down to five Latin phrases:
  1. Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura)
  2. Faith alone (Sola Fide)
  3. Grace alone (Sola Gratia)
  4. Christ alone (Solo Christo)
  5. To the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria)

The term Calvinism honors the contributions of John Calvin (1509-1564), who wrote one of the most important theology books to come out of the Reformation, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which has impacted nearly every denomination of Christianity. Calvinists believe that God has planned and guaranteed, for his own glory and before time began, all that will come to pass, including the salvation of all those who will believe in him.

Some object to the famous Five Points of Calvinism, sometimes known as the Doctrines of Grace. You can learn more about those who object to Calvinism here. Of course, Calvinism is much more than five points, and Reformed Theology can never be boiled down to merely these five points, but history has spotlighted these:
  1. Human beings are completely and entirely to blame for the sinful condition that separates them from God. This condition affects their entire being, so that they are totally unable to choose God by their own power. Since they are dead in their trespasses and sins, they cannot do anything to save themselves.
  2. God chose people to save from this dead and helpless condition. He did not have to choose anyone--he could leave them to their sin and punishment--but he chose some anyway. He did the choosing because they cannot.
  3. God sent Jesus to die for those he chose, by which he covered all their sins. Christ did not die just to make salvation possible for everyone; he died to make it absolutely certain for those he chose. This means that no one for whom Christ died will ever go to hell. The most controversial implication of this is that Christ did not die for everyone in the exact same way.
  4. All those God chose will definitely come to Jesus. He will lose none of them. God will not let anyone he chose die in their trespasses and sins.
  5. All those God chose will continue in their faith until the day they die. They might have ups and downs, but in the end they will never fall away from their faith. Those who do were never truly saved in the first place.
These five points are often remembered using letters that spell the word TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints.

Can you hear in these Five Points why they are sometimes referred to as the Doctrines of Grace? If everyone deserves condemnation, and God doesn't have to save anyone, but he does anyway through the gift of Christ, what else would you call that but grace?

Covenant Theology

In Covenant Theology, the Covenant promises of God unite the entire storyline of the Bible. That storyline covers thousands of years, so it is difficult to summarize in short paragraphs. But here is a broad overview of the Covenants in Scripture:
  • The Covenant of Works was made with Adam, the head of the human race, to whom God promised a kingdom of eternal life and divine fellowship if Adam obeyed God's commands. 
  • The Covenant of Redemption established Christ as the head of a new people carved out of the cesspool of humanity to receive the kingdom promise of life and fellowship forfeited by Adam's disobedience. 
  • The Covenant of Grace unfolded the Covenant of Redemption in space and time through the Old and New Covenants, by which people are placed under the headship of Christ instead of Adam.    
  • The Old Covenant prepares the world for the coming of Christ by preaching him and his atoning work to be received by faith, by picturing his kingdom and fellowship, by distinguishing it from the cesspool of humanity, and by defining the disobedience through which everyone else has forfeited kingdom life and fellowship.     
  • Through the New Covenant, Christ kept the terms of the Covenant of Works for his people, received in himself the punishment due them, and pushed the boundaries of his kingdom of eternal life and divine fellowship throughout the entire world.
God revealed his Covenant of Grace to and through various other "heads" before Christ, demonstrating humanity's insufficiency and need for Christ: Noah, Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses, King David and his descendants. We sometimes refer to these as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants, although they are all partitive revelations of the one Covenant of Grace. In bits and pieces, God revealed through these that his kingdom would comprise a people, and land, a king, and the pinnacle of the kingdom promise would be eternal fellowship with the one true God.

In the New Covenant, God kept the terms of the Covenant of Works through Jesus Christ on behalf of a people who could never do it themselves. This is why it is called a "Covenant of Grace." As the new head of a New Creation, Jesus kept the law on their behalf and took their punishment in their place. This is what the Bible means when it calls Jesus the "second Adam."

The unfolding story reveals that this New Covenant was God's plan all along, and the plan was bigger and better than anyone fully knew under the Old Covenant (although there were many mysterious hints along the way):
  1. The New Covenant Kingdom's people would come from every tribe, tongue, and nation throughout the entire world!
  2. The New Covenant Kingdom's land would be the entire earth!
  3. The New Covenant Kingdom's king would be the Son of God, who would rule over and dwell with his people in the land for all eternity! Emmanuel!
The Old Covenant always pointed to the New Covenant in which Christ kept the terms of the Covenant of Works for his people. Together they showcased God's perfections: his goodness, his justice, his mercy, his power, etc. Together they glorified God.

Creeds and Confessions

Reformed churches and denominations summarize the message of the Bible in statements of faith called Creeds or Confessions. These creeds and confessions are usually very old, because what these churches and denominations believe is nothing new. They are repositories of what the Holy Spirit has been teaching the church for centuries. Reformed Churches value them for several reasons:
  1. Creeds and Confessions are used as tools to teach church members what God reveals in the Bible.
  2. Creeds and Confessions bring unity to the Church by providing a standard for agreement and fellowship among churches and denominations. Churches that agree with a certain Statement of Faith generally know that their beliefs are similar and compatible.   
  3. Creeds and Confessions protect the teaching of the church from the changing whims of culture and popular belief. How many churches do you know that have given in to worldly pressure to change what they believe?
"No Creed but the Bible"

"No creed but the Bible." You may have heard something like this before. Unfortunately, this statement fails to acknowledge that all Christians, churches, and denominations make statements of faith every time they summarize, teach, or preach anything about God. Unless one is willing to preach using only the words of Scripture and nothing else (in other words, to simply read the Bible aloud), one cannot avoid creating informal statements of faith in every conversation about God. Even most modern, "non-creedal" churches include in their constitutions some brief Statement of Faith. They therefore have no grounds to argue against the use of more formal, lengthy, time-honored Statements of Faith. "No Creed but the Bible" is just not possible. Whether written or unwritten, formal, or informal, all churches create Statements of Faith. Why not use one that has providentially stood the test of time?

The Westminster Confession of Faith

Reformed creeds come in different shapes and sizes, but they tend to share many of the same ideas. Chief among them is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). In the mid-1600's dozens of godly scholars and preachers collaborated for years to accurately summarize the teaching of Scripture. Today, the WCF is chiefly used by the Presbyterians. But the Baptists have their own version of it--The London Baptist Confession of 1689. They used the WCF as a template for this confession, which reveals that the they share a heritage similar to the Presbyterians. Technically, the Baptists were historically called "particular" rather than "Reformed," because "Reformed" historically belongs only to confessional churches who embrace Covenant Theology.

Today the word "Reformed" has been somewhat watered down as more and more non-Presbyterians have claimed the label. It is enough for most historically Reformed churches to know the history of the word and issues at play. Many therefore do not begrudge the use of the word by those whom history would not technically call "Reformed" (although they wish the Baptists would be more "particular" with their language).  Since the London Baptist Confession shares so much of Reformed theology's heritage, many in the Reformed community wish the Baptists godspeed in the common cause! They are pleased to join together in the propagation of the Gospel in West Virginia!