Why I Am a Reformed Christian
In the previous blog I wrote of the route I took to becoming a Christian and why I did. I would refer the reader to that post as these comments will be built on what was said in it. This topic will be addressed in two blogs: first, what is Reformed theology and what’s the big deal about it? Second, the journey to grace on which God led me.
I fully embraced Reformed theology about 1995; thus I have lived with it for several years, during which time I have read many, many books of theology, preached, taught and written. For several years Engedi Ministries was a fruitful outlet with a weekly radio program, weekly devotionals (which I still write), regular classes, special studies sent to our supporters, and even more venues.
As it was well-known at my university (Lipscomb in Nashville, a Church of Christ related institution) that I embraced these “different” doctrines, I often had students ask me about my beliefs. One student approached me and said, “Dr. Lawrence, I hear you believe in predestination. What is predestination?” Another student, not known for being tactful, once asked me in the midst of a class, “Dr. Lawrence, I have heard that you are a Calvinist. What is a Calvinist?” (I fully understood that the term “Calvinist” is often used as a pejorative for Reformed.) Not wanting to open up a theological debate in the midst of a history class, although the students would have welcomed the diversion from the lecture, I responded, “A Calvinist believes the Bible, all of it, and accepts it as the verbally-inspired word of God.” It is the “all of it” that really sets off Reformed theology, as it means that Reformed people are not at liberty to pick and choose what scriptures from which to construct their theology; we must deal with all of it, try to harmonize them, and if we can’t, still accept them. Some call the picking and choosing approach “cafeteria theology,” and others “cherry picking.” Reformed people are committed not to make this approach even though it would be admittedly easier.
That such is done was brought home to me when a lady in our church who had embraced the doctrines of sovereign grace told me about an experience her son had in a Church of Christ related school nearby. The teacher assigned the boy to memorize and be prepared to write on the board Rom. 8:28 ending with “those who love God.” The boy memorized and wrote all of the verse on the board including the last phrase, “and are called according to his purpose.” The teacher went to the board, erased that phrase and chided the boy, “That’s not one of our verses!”
Not only do Reformed people commit themselves to incorporating the entire Bible into their theology, they commit themselves to using verses honestly, without twisting them to fit a preconceived doctrine. I recall John Calvin’s comment at the end of his life that he had never knowingly written against any person or twisted any scripture passage. In other words, if Scripture conflicts with our doctrine, it is the doctrine that must change. I was made aware of this situation when I attended a legalistic school in Florida while still quite young. I did have some very good teachers, and one of them was a man for whom I had great respect. He taught a class called “The Scheme of Redemption” which was a synthesis of Ephesians and Colossians. I was still very green when it came to the Bible, so this was my first exposure to the fact that God had an eternal purpose in Christ. For the first time I encountered the word predestination, and I found these ideas very intriguing. However, the teacher explained that what God predestined was not people but a plan, (the purpose), and when we chose of our own free will to conform to the plan, we became God’s predestined people. Even then I looked at the verses and wondered, for that is not what they said. Paul wrote that before the beginning of time God chose us to be a holy people and predestined us to be adopted as his children, all in accordance with his eternal purpose in Christ (Eph. 1:4,5,11). At that point I hadn’t even studied Romans and encountered chapters 8 and 9!
Thus Reformed Theology is built on the proposition that all the Bible is God’s word to us, and by the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit, we learn God’s purpose: what he prophesied, what he did in Christ, and how we are saved to his glory. At the heart of the Reformation lies the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone, a doctrine that Martin Luther was able to uncover from his own struggles with trying to be good enough to be saved and a careful examination of the Greek text of Romans 1:16-17. Even the faith by which we are justified and declared righteous in God’s sight (by the righteousness of Christ which is a foreign, alien righteousness to our own) is a gift of God, for God is sovereign and has his elect people chosen from before the foundation of the world. Because all of us are sinners and incapable of good works, even of choosing Christ out of our fallen minds and hearts, God opens our hearts through the act of re-birth by the Holy Spirit, brings us to saving faith, declares us righteous, guides us by his Spirit in the life-long process of sanctification, and eventually brings us to glory. As Paul put it in Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son that he might be the firstborn among many brothers, and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Many people think of the acronym TULIP when they think of Reformed Theology or Calvinism. Actually, John Calvin would not have known of this term, as it came into being long after his death. Calvin, by the way, was a second generation reformer who is not responsible for defining the doctrines of sovereign grace but rather of clearly systematizing them in the most influential book of the Reformation, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (The true father of the Reformed faith, I assert, is Martin Bucer, the reformer of Strassbourg. I wrote a biography of Bucer that was published in 2008.) The acronym TULIP came about after Jacob Arminius, a professor at the University of Leiden in Holland challenged the theology of the Dutch church on five points (first four, then, to be logical, five). He came to believe that although man fell and is a sinner that his fall and his sin are not so radical that he cannot still make a free-will decision to come to Christ. He also believed that God’s predestination of us is not based solely on God’s eternal purpose, but that it is conditioned on our response. Thus God looked down the stream of time, like someone previewing a movie, and predestined us based on his knowing ahead of time the choice we would make (prevenient predestination). He also believed in the third place that Christ’s death was to make salvation possible for all men not certain for anyone, and, fourth, he believed that the call of God is resistible. His students suggested that once he had denied these four basic doctrines, logically he should accept that if the Christian disobeys God, he will lose his salvation. In other words, if we, rather than God, are responsible for being in Christ, we can also take ourselves out of Christ.
These five objections to the Reformed theology of the Dutch church were considered at a synod held at Dordt in the early seventeenth century, and all five were repudiated by the theologians of Holland. What started as five points of objection to the established religion of Holland, having been denied point by point, resulted then in the “five points of Calvinism:” which would be total depravity (radical fallen-ness), unconditional election, limited or definite atonement (also called particular redemption), irresistible grace (or the effectual calling) and the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints (saved).
What is the appeal, then, of Reformed theology? Why did I change my theology and embrace it? Let me list five of my reasons:
1. Reformed theology is Biblical. It has stood the test of time and the scrutiny of countless Bible scholars through the years. No one has been able to offer repudiation based on Holy Scripture. All attempts that I have encountered through the years are based on philosophical argument and not Biblical exegesis. It is, in my understanding and belief, the most complete and accurate systematic statement of the theology of the Bible ever devised by theologians. (While Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica is as extensive and complete as John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and essentially in agreement with it on most points, Aquinas based his conclusions on Aristotelian dialectical reasoning…he said he wanted to reach the conclusions of Augustine with the methodology of Aristotle…Calvin’s is based on textual Biblical exegesis.)
2. Reformed theology is consistent with itself. My mind has difficulty with inconsistencies. Arminianism is inconsistent, for it claims that we are saved by God’s grace, and yet at the bottom it is because of our choice. We are saved because Jesus died for us on the cross, they say, yet that death is not sufficient in and of itself. Man is fallen and dead in sin, yet he can still make a free-will choice for Christ, which is not only a good work but arguably the best work man can make. Yet they also teach we are not saved by good works. They teach that they give all glory to God, and yet ultimately we are the ones who have taken the decisive step. Reformed theology follows the purpose of God through the various covenants that he made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ in a smooth, flowing pattern, with God adding additional revelation at every juncture until culmination in Christ. Man’s sin is met with God’s grace. Man’s inability with God’s ability. I recall one student telling me that the problem she had with me was that what I believed was too rational! I am still trying to process that statement. (No Reformed person believes for a moment that one is not saved because he does not accept Reformed theology and is an Arminian. We do speak of the “happy inconsistencies” of Arminianism. The Bible teaches that whoever puts his faith in Christ is saved, not whoever has an accurate understanding of theology. Pelagians however, who trust in their own good works for their salvation, need to realize that they are on very shaky ground.)
3. Reformed theology is true to reality. I can remember a student I met when I first came to Lipscomb. I was expecting to find students who “had it all together” now that I was teaching at a school that was associated with my church. This student, brought up Church of Christ, shocked me when he said that he would never go to church again. I asked him why. He told me about his parents who fought continually and whose lives were completely messed up. But he said they always went to church, and as soon as they got out of the car, they were Mr. and Mrs. Perfect Christian. In legalistic churches there is no allowance for messing up, so there must always be the pretense of being pious. I heard more and more about people serving communion of Sunday who had been involved in all kinds of sin on Friday and Saturday, but they could never admit that, because they would be looked down on. After all, we were saved only if we were “obedient.” Reformed theology faces head on our brokenness, our sin, our fallen state, admits it, confesses it, and looks to Christ for pardon. It conforms to the reality of who we are, the world we live in, and our own weaknesses and inabilities. We are allowed to be ourselves and take off our mask of hypocrisy. We are all sinners who come to Christ for pardon, forgiveness and deliverance. I recall a good friend and former student who would come in my office and say, “Dr. Lawrence, I was in my sin over the weekend.” That’s who we are: sinners, but we are sinners who know that we sinners and seek from Christ not only the grace to receive pardon but the grace to live more and more Christ-like lives.
4. Reformed theology is a tree that bears good fruit. Jesus said that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Why do I say it is a good tree? It shows us how much God has loved us, even before he created the world, and even forever, from eternity past to eternity to come. We shall never be able to do anything to cause God to love us less, and there is nothing we can do to make him love us more. This realization is empowering! I have had students tell me that understanding the doctrine of predestination actually enabled them to overcome drugs. Some have said that knowing their own sin saved their marriages. Others have said that they were humbled. One very tall student stood in the doorway to my office once trembling, and he said that he had never known anything so humbling. His father thanked me for teaching his son these doctrines, which he admitted he did not himself accept. However, he said that his son was only lukewarm to the Christian faith before and was now on fire! People find great joy in the grace of God and the assurance of their salvation, and this joy never diminishes. I remember studying with one young man who was co-teacher of a Sunday school class with me in an Arminian church. As we looked at 2 Tim. 1:9, he was amazed and thanked me for showing me how much God loved him. I have asked students if understanding that God loves them so much and that the work of Christ on their behalf is so complete that they shall never lose their salvation would cause them to want to go out and sin. I can remember that one of the objections to the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer or God’s promise to preserve his people to everlasting life (often referred to as “once saved, always saved”) was that it would be an inducement to sin with impunity. So the answer I received without exception was that, on the contrary, understanding their eternal security in Christ gave them motivation to live a holy life to God’s glory. As one young person said, “How can I spit in the face of a God who loves me that much?” Well put!
5. Reformed theology is the consensus of the ages. The concepts of God’s sovereignty, our sin, God’s grace, and the outworking of his eternal purpose in the Messiah form the constant theme of the Bible and its writers and of Christian theology through the years. It is often thought that Luther, Melancthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth century simply dreamed up this new theological approach. On the contrary, these concepts were accepted by men and women of God through the years. Steven Lawson has done a great service to Christian scholarship in his series on the Foundations of the Faith. In his first volume, A Long Line of Godly Men, he shows the consistency of doctrinal thought in writers of the Bible, leaders of God’s people, prophets, and apostles. He is continuing his study through Christian history. Having taught this subject myself, I know of the theological thought of medieval scholars in the universities and monasteries. There is a consistent pattern of thought: salvation by grace. Foremost among scholars in the West is St. Augustine of Hippo who emphasized God’s sovereign purpose in election and salvation by grace alone basing his conclusions on Paul’s writings. St. Anselm of Canterbury defined the atonement of Christ as a satisfaction of God’s justice and even, if we read Cur Deus Homo carefully, taught particular redemption. Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, Gregory of Rimini, and Duns Scotus are only a few of the great scholars who subscribed to the consensus of grace including divine election. Then came John Wycliffe and John Hus as precursors of the Reformation. Yes, there were the dissenters like the British monk Pelagius who believed that man was born neutral, that Adam’s sin affected only him, and man’s salvation the result of his free choice and his own works, and John Cassian who took a midway position between him and Augustine with his doctrine of the preserved island of righteousness (Semi-Pelagianism), but the majority held to the belief that we are saved by grace. Bernard of Clairvaux’s favorite passage was Titus 3:4-5 (“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”). It was for Martin Luther to define the doctrine of forensic justification by faith that would bring to completion the essentials of Christian theology. And yet, there is always room for progress and growth in understanding. The Reformers had an expression: Semper Reformanda, or always reforming. I think of John Owen’s definitive work on the atonement in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, of the work of Jonathan Edwards as well as the contributions of other Puritan scholars and theologians to this day.
We have so far looked at the five distinctive doctrines of Reformed theology and my five reasons for accepting it. As the number five seems to have some significance for us, let me now include another summation in five terms, what we call the five solas of the Reformed faith. Arminians and Pelagians ultimately have a complex and inconsistent theology and have been known to ridicule the simplicity of Reformed theology. Yet there is simplicity in God that is both profound and awesome while at the same time all encompassing, profound and complex. So what are the five solas?
1. Sola Gratia: salvation is by grace alone. (“For it is by grace that you are saved… Eph. 2:8)
2. Soli fide: salvation is through faith alone. (“For it is by grace that you are saved by faith and this [faith] not of yourselves for it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” Eph. 2:8-9).
3. Solo Christo: salvation is in Christ alone. (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” John 14:6).
4. Sola Scriptura: Salvation is according to Scripture alone. (“All scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” 2 Tim. 3:16-17.)
5. Soli Deo Gloria, to God alone may be all the glory. (“To him be glory forever” Rom. 11:36…”to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever, Amen.” Eph. 3:21.)
Before concluding this discussion on what being Reformed is, I want to include a remark made to me a few years ago by Frank Brock, then president of Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had gone there to meet with Dr. Brock, and he took me on a tour of the campus. As we were walking, he said that he always envisioned being Reformed in three categories: first, accurate doctrine or theology, as we have discussed above. Second, Christian piety, or living the Christian life as best as God grants us the grace to do so, and third, a Christian world view.
Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith not of ourselves, as we saw above. But he goes on to say in verse 10 that even though our salvation is not of works, yet we are created in Christ unto good works to which God has appointed us to walk in. God’s purpose for our lives involves personal righteousness which, although never perfect in this life, ever develops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 12:1-2, 2 Cor. 3:18, Rom. 8:29, Matt. 5:16, and many other scriptures.) Good works do not justify us, but no one who is justified can continue in a life of unrepentant sin without obedience to God. John says that the person born of God cannot continue in sin (1 John 3:9). Christian piety, which includes love, humility, kindness, compassion, meekness and other manifestations of the heart and character of Christ (what Paul describes in Gal. 5:22-24 as the fruit of the Spirit), is an integral part of the Reformed faith and what it means to be Reformed. It is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian, but Reformed Christians are always conscious of the fact that all they do is through Christ (Phil 4:13), not themselves, that they are enabled by Christ to serve him (Phil. 2:12-13), that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5), and all is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). In this view there is no room for pride or self-glory (Gal. 6:14, Eph. 2:9).
Finally, there is a world view. Calvin began his theology with creation, one of the key points that separated him from Luther who began with redemption. Reformed theology encompasses all of life for all time. Nothing is insignificant. No person is meaningless. Everything has its place in a universe governed by a sovereign God according to an eternal purpose, from eternity past, through all of time to eternity future. We see everything as it comes from God and as it relates to God. We do all to the glory of God. From infancy to the grave, from the time we get up to the time we retire, it is that God is all in all in our lives. We see everything, as my good friend (Bob Love, founder and first chairman of the board of Wichita Collegiate School) once said, through a filter of faith!
Once again, as I said at the end of the first blog, I thank you for persevering to the end. If you are interested, my next blog will tell my story of my own journey in grace.
To Him be all glory!