The Reformed faith, or Reformed theology, is an understanding of the Bible’s teaching that centers on the glory and sovereignty of God (Isaiah 6:3; Ephesians 1:11; Revelation 4:11). Though those committed to Reformed theology – myself included – believe it is Scriptural, and therefore was the theology of Jesus, Paul, and the apostles, the Reformed faith as a systematic expression of biblical truth came to full flowering during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. The confessions, catechisms, and creeds from that period give the best summary and definition of what the Reformed faith is all about. I’ve included links to some of these at the end of this post.
Rather than trying to say all that could be said here – which is a lot! – I’ll focus on two fundamental truths taught by Reformed theology: God’s sovereign grace, and God’s gracious covenant.
1. God’s sovereign grace.
God’s absolute control over all he has made extends also to the salvation of sinners (Psalm 62:7; Revelation 7:10). God’s sovereignty in saving his people magnifies his goodness, grace, and glory. The usual way of expressing this sovereign grace is with the acronym TULIP (also called the five points of Calvinism).
T – Total Depravity.
The Bible is clear – we are born sinners (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 5:19). “Totally depraved” doesn’t mean we are as bad as we possibly could be, but it does mean sin has corrupted every part of our being. So that, by nature we are unable to do anything truly good in the sight of God, including putting our faith in Christ for salvation (Isaiah 64:6; Luke 6:43; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14) .
Another way the Bible expresses this is by saying we are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Just as a dead person cannot make a choice, so as people spiritually dead, apart from God’s grace we cannot choose to believe in Christ. First we need to be made spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:5), which is a work of God’s Spirit and is called in the Bible being “born again” (John 3:3, 7).
U – Unconditional Election.
This simply means God has chosen whom he will save (Ephesians 1:4). And he made his choice not on the basis of any goodness or worthiness in us, because as we’ve seen the Bible teaches that, as sinners, we are totally depraved (Romans 9:11). Nor did he choose those whom he foresaw would believe in Christ (which is just a backdoor way of saying the choice ultimately lies in man!).
According God’s own boundless goodness and wisdom, in that ineffably mysterious eternal decree in which God ordained all that comes to pass (Ephesians 1:11), he set apart a people to be saved. This people the Bible calls the “elect” (Titus 1:1).
Now, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life promised in the gospel is to be offered freely to all people (Isaiah 45:22; Acts 1:8; Romans 10:18). All are called to repent and believe in Christ as Lord and Savior (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47). But as Jesus declared, “… many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). Only those whom God has chosen will come to saving faith in Christ (John 6:37; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29, 30).
L – Limited Atonement.
Many have found this the most difficult of these five points, because it appears to suggest a limit to the worth of Christ’s death, or because it seems to deny that the gospel is for everyone. But limited atonement does not entail these things. Instead, this doctrine highlights an extremely important aspect of the death of Christ, that is, God’s sovereignty in securing the salvation of his elect.
The inherent value of Christ’s death is such that, were all people to come to Christ for salvation, his death would be sufficient to cover their sins (John 3:16). And, God wills that the gospel be proclaimed to all (though not all are elect). However, Christ died specifically on behalf of his elect people (Matthew 1:21; Mark 10:45; John 10:26-28; Acts 20:28). What this means is that Christ did not merely die to make salvation possible for all, but he died to make salvation an absolute certainty for many.
I – Irresistible Grace.
This means when God calls one of his elect to faith in Christ, that person will not fail to believe (John 6:37). This doesn’t mean that God brings people into his kingdom against their will – kicking and dragging all the way to the cross! Rather, the Spirit so changes a sinner’s heart, that he or she comes “most freely” (as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it). A good illustration is the prodigal son. In his sin, he wanted nothing to do with his father. But by the grace of God his heart was changed, so that in the end he wanted nothing other than to be with his father (and what a welcome his father gave him! – see Luke 15:11-32). So it is with God’s grace towards a sinner chosen for salvation – the Spirit renews his heart so that he wants nothing more than to believe in, and follow, Christ.
P – Perseverance of the Saints.
For the believer who struggles with his sin (and what true Christian doesn’t?!), this doctrine is a comfort and encouragement. It teaches that God, out of faithfulness to his promise and by his almighty power, preserves and keeps us in his grace until the day of final salvation – the day when Christ returns (Philippians 1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 1 Peter 1:5). In other words, no true Christian can ever lose his salvation (John 10:28, 29). Knowing how weak and faithless we can be, that is good news!
2. God’s gracious covenant.
Reformed theology also teaches that the essential character of God’s dealings with us is expressed by the biblical term “covenant”. One children’s catechism says a covenant is “a relationship that God establishes with us and guarantees by his word.” Since God is God and we are his creatures, if we are to know and love him, he must establish that relationship. And that relationship is based on this promise: I will be your God, and you shall be my people (Jeremiah 30:22; Revelation 21:3).
God first entered into a covenant relationship with Adam and Eve. Reformed theology calls this the “covenant of works,” because Adam’s right standing with God, and therefore eternal life, was conditioned upon his perfect obedience to God’s commands (Adam’s “works” – see Genesis 2:15-17).
Since Adam sinned, God established another covenant with man – the “covenant of grace.” In this covenant, we obtain a right standing with God and eternal life not on the basis of our obedience, but by faith in Christ (Romans 3:28). When we trust in Christ, God graciously forgives our sins and counts us as righteous in his sight on the basis of the perfect obedience of Christ (Romans 3:21, 22; Romans 5:19).
Like the teachings of TULIP, the Reformed understanding of the covenant magnifies the grace and sovereignty of God in our salvation. We are not saved by our works, but by the obedience, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And just as this is true for us, it was also true for the people of Israel in the Old Testament (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6-9). Salvation has always been by faith alone and in Christ alone, and for the glory of God alone.
I love the Reformed faith. It unites the various strands of biblical teaching in one grand vision of the surpassing glory and grace of God. In my mind I find it profoundly satisfying as a comprehensive system of doctrine. But far more than that, the truths expressed by the Reformed faith move my heart. I am humbled by my sin and desperate need for grace. I stand in awe of the majesty of God. And when I am gripped with a fresh remembrance of the sovereign grace of God in saving me from my sins, my heart swells with thanksgiving.
At its best, theology issues forth in worship (Romans 11:33-35). For me, it is Reformed theology that presents God and Christ as most worthy to be praised.
Here are some helpful links to learn more about Reformed theology:
Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Smaller Catechism (pdf). The denomination I serve, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is a Reformed church and committed to the theology in these documents. As a minister in the OPC, I have vowed to “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and Catechisms… as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.”
Three Forms of Unity – Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort (pdf). These make up the doctrine believed and taught by the United Reformed Churches (among others), a denomination very similar to the OPC in faith and practice.
“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism” from desiringGod ministries (John Piper). This is from a baptist perspective, but is an excellent explanation of TULIP (though they change it to “TILUP”!)
“A Brief and Untechnical Statement of the Reformed Faith,” by B.B. Warfield. This is just what it says, a “brief and untechnical” statement of Reformed theology.
“What We Believe,” from the website of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. A summary of the theology of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.