Survey of the Reformed Faith 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
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
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
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.
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;
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
The Reformed believe that those whom
God justifies, he sanctifies (Rom. 8:29-39).
We do not believe those truly saved can "lose" their salvation, nor do we
believe they can so fall away from God's care that they live in a state of continual
carnality. We do not hold with dispensationalists and fundamentalists that carnality is a
category of believers, although we certainly believe Christians can be carnal. If
professed Christians do not perform good works, they are only proving their faith is not
2:17-26), that is, they are not converted.
The Reformed do not believe that one
can attain sinless perfection or a state of rest from the battles with the inward
principle of sin until they meet Christ at death or at his coming (Rom. 7:15-25).
They do believe, though, that as the Spirit works in the elect, he produces progress so
that the power of sin becomes weaker (Rom. 6:16). The
means by which he sanctifies us include the word of God (1 Pet. 2:1-3),
our resistance to sin (1 Pet. 5; 8, 9),
the mortification of the deeds of the sinful man (Rom. 6:15-22),
and personal tribulation (Jas. 1:2-4).
The Reformed believe God relates to
man by means of covenant: "The distance between God and the creature is so great,
that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they
could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some
voluntary condescension on God's part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of
For example, in salvation God
promises eternal life on the grounds of Christ's death to all for whom Christ died and who
exercise faith (Jn. 3:14-18).
Under the new covenant God forgives the sins of his people in that Christ bore the penalty
for those sins and God writes his law on his people's hearts (Heb. 8:6-13).
Further, God promises blessings to
his people and to their children on condition of their obedience (Dt. 4:39, 40; 5:32, 33).
Children of believing parents as covenantal heirs are brought into a special relationship
to God (Gen.
17:7; Ac. 2:38, 39; 1 Cor. 7:14).
Moreover, the Reformed believe the
Abrahamic covenant must be fulfilled. Abraham must be father to many nations and kings (Gen. 17:4-8).
The seed of Abraham are all those who place faith in Christ (Gal. 3:28, 29).
Therefore, a multitude of nations and kings will one day join the church by virtue of
union with Christ.
The church is an extremely important
part of the Reformed faith. Though we recognize what is usually called the universal
church composed of all believers, we concentrate attention on the local body of united
believers. The church universal, which is Christ's body (Eph. 1:22, 23),
is composed of all believers on earth and in heaven (Heb. 12:23).
The church local is composed of believers united for the sake of Christ to fulfill the
dominion and gospel commissions.
The church is Christ's corporate
representation on earth (Mt. 28:18-20;
5:19, 20). Its commission is to declare the gospel of Jesus Christ and to bring all
nations under the discipline of Jesus Christ and the word of God. The church should edify
itself by the preaching of the word (2 Tim. 4:2),
communion with Christ's flesh and blood at his table (1 Cor. 10:16),
and the affectionate exercise of gifts among the members (Eph. 4:7-16).
In the Reformed view, preaching is
exalted. In some other views (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, for example), the
minister stands almost as Christ Himself and delivers the grace of God to those who hear.
On the other hand, among some Pentecostals and Baptists, the minister is seen as a
"prophet": he declares inspired words he believes God directly shows him. By
contrast, the Reformed believe the minister stands in an awesome place before the people
of God to declare the very word of God as found in the Bible. He must meet not only the
highest spiritual qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7)
but the highest intellectual qualifications as well (2 Tim. 2:15).
This does not mean he must be scholar in the eyes of the unconverted. It does mean he
should have a thorough command of the Bible, of illuminating books about the Bible, and of
the language in which he preaches. He must declare not his own ideas but the very word of
God. His preaching must then necessarily be expositional-that is, he must expound what the
Bible is actually saying. But that alone is not enough. He must then apply that truth
under the power of the Holy Spirit to the converted and unconverted under the sound of his
The Reformed faith stresses the
Lord's table. It is there in partaking together of the bread and wine that all members of
the families of the church remember Christ's death (1 Cor. 11:24),
gain strength for the Christian life (Jn. 6:41-63),
and publicly profess their determination to follow the new covenant (Mt. 26:28).
The Reformed disagree with Roman
Catholics over the Lord's table. We do not believe in transubstantiation or that the table
is a mass. We believe that the Roman view of the table is blasphemy. We disagree with
Lutherans who believe Christ is physically with, in, and under the bread and wine. We
disagree with most evangelicals that the Lord's table is merely a memorial and does not
give grace and strength to those who partake in faith.
We believe that Christians actually
commune with Christ's flesh and blood when they partake by faith (1 Cor. 10:16).
The elements are never anything other than bread and wine, but the flesh and blood of
Christ by which we have eternal life accompany the symbols.
The Reformed do not believe Jesus is
Lord only of Christians and the family and church. They believe he is Lord over all things
( Eph. 1). We
believe that society must be sanctified just like the Christian, family, and church must
be sanctified. The Reformed believe in the "separation of church and state," but
not the separation of the state from God. We believe all political leaders are required by
God to submit themselves to God and his word ( Ps. 2).
We disagree with the Anabaptist view
that politics is bad and that Christians should stay out of political office and away from
political processes. We believe that Christians should press the claims of the Lordship of
Christ in politics just as they should in the family, church, education, business,
economics, education, the arts, and every other part of the society.
We believe that the church cannot
fail in in its mission to Christianize the nations with the gospel and the word of God (Mt. 16:18, 19;
28:18-20). We do not hold that the church is "holding the fort" until Jesus
arrives to rescue his people. We believe he accompanies his people wherever they go in
their mission (Mt. 28:18-20)
and that they will accomplish greater exploits than even he did while he was on earth; we
believe that one reason Christ returned to heaven is so that his people could accomplish
great tasks by his grace (Jn. 14:12).
We believe that Christ is presently
reigning on David's throne (Ac. 2:22-36) and will remain there until all his enemies are
placed under his feet (Heb. 10:11-14).
Thus we believe the church will be successful in its mission to preach the gospel and
bring all nations under the discipleship of Christ's word. We expect a future period of an
overwhelming number of conversions (Rom. 11:11-29)
and Christian civilization (Is. 11:1-11).
The Reformed are uncomfortable with
the labels "fundamentalist" and "evangelical." They believe the
fundamentals of the faith as strongly as any fundamentalist, but we believe also that
fundamentalism has watered down the message of the Bible and the Lordship of Jesus Christ
over all of life. Likewise, the Reformed do not prefer to be called
"evangelical," even though we hold to the evangel, the gospel, just as strongly
as any evangelical. We believe evangelicals have compromised the gospel message by toning
down the truth that Christ not only died to save sinners but that he also actually secured
their salvation by his death.
Calvinism, unlike so many other
Christian variations, is a life-system. It governs every area of life. Its task does not
end when the church meeting has concluded Sunday; it has only begun. This is one of the
reasons we of the Reformed faith believe we-I should say Christ working through us-will
win in history. The first reason we have such confidence is that we believe the Bible
promises such victory. But the second reason is that Calvinism is the only truly
comprehensive Christian scheme combatting Satan's kingdom. Other groups fight selectively;
Calvinism fights on all fronts. By the grace of God, it will fight Satan's kingdom in
every sphere until all foes are placed under Christ's feet. Its goal is expressed simply
but powerfully in the statement of Abraham Kuyper, former prime minister of the
Netherlands and one of the greatest defenders of Calvinism:
One desire has been the ruling
passion of my life. One high motive has acted like a spur upon my mind and soul. And
sooner than that I should seek escape from the sacred necessity that is laid upon me, let
the breath of life fail me. It is this: That in spite of all worldly opposition, God's
holy ordinances shall be established again in the home, in the school and in the State for
the good of the people; to carve as it were in the conscience of the nation the ordinances
of the Lord, to which Bible and creation bear witness, until the nation pays homage again
Andrew Sandlin for Chalcedon
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Last updated: 01/05/2000
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