By Andrew Sandlin
Trying to define the Reformed faith simply and briefly is like taking a snapshop of the Grand Canyon at 50 yards: inevitably, something is going to get left out. Even an outline of it, though, is better than nothing at all, especially in these days when the American church desperately needs a revival of Calvinism.
That word Calvinism is much abused. Some Church of Christ believers and Baptists, for example, claim that when we of the Reformed faith use it, we are only proving their accusation that we are following a man, John Calvin. They, however, say they are following God and the Bible alone. It is really hard to believe they can be so naive, though. They read books written by and hear sermons preached by leaders of their own group and use these "man-made" works to give them a better understanding of what they believe the Bible teaches. The Reformed do the same thing with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others. We believe their teaching is closer to what the Bible teaches than anybody else's; we do not accept their teaching instead of the Bible. Only the Bible is infallible and authoritative; we just believe their teaching about it is superior to competing teachings.
The Reformed faith, then, holds it is the closest approximation of what the Bible teaches. It was expressed in part by Augustine, and came to full fruition in the teachings of John Calvin and the other reformers at the time of the Reformation. It was held to a greater or lesser degree by the Pilgrims and the Puritans. It survives today among those usually called Reformed, Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, Calvinistic Methodists, and many reconstructionists.
Every system of theology has some theme it revolves around. For example, Roman Catholicism revolves around the universal church; Methodism revolves around sanctification; Pentecostalism revolves around the Holy Spirit; the Baptist faith revolves around the new birth; Lutheranism revolves around justification by faith; Greek Orthodoxy revolves around sacramentalism. The Reformed faith, by contrast, revolves around God. For that reason-if for no other-it should be taken seriously.
The Reformed share with most other Christian traditions a lofty estimate of the attributes and nature of God. In the Reformed view, however, God is even more highly exalted. God knows what will happen because He controls all things in the universe (Is. 46:9, 10). He does what He wants to do, and no one can stop Him (Ps. 115:3). He is holy (Is. 6:1-5), and hates both ungodliness and the ungodly (Ps. 11:5).
The Reformed Faith embraces Trinitarian orthodoxy. We believe God exists in three persons, the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. We believe God is a perfect Spirit (Jn. 4:24), but that in the incarnation Christ took on human flesh (Phil. 2:5-11) which He now retains, though in perfect, resurrected form. We believe that Christ was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died a substitutionary death for the sins of the world, rose bodily the third day from the tomb, and ascended to heaven where He is now seated next to his Father.
For the Reformed, the Bible is inspired of God and is "the rule of faith and life." Indeed, "The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of sacred writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."
The final authority for "faith and life" is the providentially preserved Old and New Testaments, written originally in Hebrew and Greek, and now translated into the common languages.
Everything necessary for us to know is found in the Bible, either in its express statements of in its implications.
Most of the attention the Reformed faith receives from non-Reformed people concerns the Reformed doctrines of salvation. Salvation doctrine is only a part of the reformed faith, but it is an important part. The Reformed beliefs include predestination and election (Eph. 1:4, 5), the full sinfulness of mankind (Rom. 3:10-18), Christ's death to secure the salvation of his own people (Jn. 10:15), and the perseverance of Christ's own (Phil. 1:6). The Reformed believe that sinners are saved totally by grace. Many other groups, like Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and many Baptists and Methodists, believe that depraved men have free will and cooperate with God in salvation; God does his part, and man does his. The Reformed are different. We believe that God does all of the work in salvation. The Father purposed our salvation from eternity (Eph. 1:4); the Son purchased our salvation at Calvary (Ac. 20:28); and the Spirit prosecutes it in time by his operation of regeneration (Jn. 3:5). He saves us not because of our works or what he knew beforehand we would do, but because of his grace (Eph. 2:8-10).
The Reformed do not believe like many evangelicals and fundamentalists that men are regenerated after they believe. We believe that men must be regenerated in order to believe. If people can develop enough spirituality to believe, then why would they need to be regenerated? (2 Cor. 2:14).
We are not, however, like some of the primitive Baptists who believe we do not need to preach the gospel for people to be saved. For God elects the means of salvation (preaching the gospel [ 1 Cor. 1:21 ]), just as he elects the people who are his own. We must preach the gospel, because the Holy Spirit uses it to convert sinners (Eph. 1:13).
We believe justification is by faith alone (Rom. 4:5; Gal. 3:6-8). When we are united to Christ in salvation, God imputes Christ's perfect righteousness to our account. In other words, He treats us as though we are as sinless as Christ, not because of our own righteousness, for we have none (Phil. 3:9), but because He looks at Christ's righteousness which he credits to us (1 Cor. 1:30). By faith, which is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8, 9), we appropriate salvation.