Occasionally, people ask me, a Presbyterian minister, “What is a Presbyterian?” or “What is reformed theology?” These are similar questions with historical differences as the Presbyterian church originated in Scotland and the Reformed church in Europe. Both have roots in the teaching of John Calvin, a French pastor who primarily worked in Geneva, Switzerland in the 1500’s.
I generally start with explaining that we are Christians with historical roots in protestant reformation. In many ways we are very similar to our brothers and sisters in the Church of England, Baptist, and other protestant denominations who hold to the historic faith. Our church government is distinctive (No bishops!) but in my mind, it is the following 6 points which make reformed theology wonderful:
Reformed folks have a high view of the bible. Almighty God – Creator of the universe has made the choice to give us a book. This is our starting point. This is how we get any understanding of the meaning of life.
2 Tim 3:16-17 – “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
We have a “Big God Theology” – the technical term is that God is sovereign. He’s in control of all things.
Isaiah 46:9-11 “for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me…‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’…
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
God will accomplish His purposes. That’s good for us because He is loving and kind and just and merciful. Jesus says in Matthew 10 that a little bird doesn’t fall to the ground without God’s permission.
God Grants Life
God chooses how to run the world and He also grants life by giving faith to His people (Eph 2:8). We see this all through scripture – people don’t earn the right to come to God. Grace is the word we use to describe the fact that God grants His favour out of the goodness of his being. We do NOT earn eternal life because we have done enough good works to please God.
Eph 1:3-5 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”
God chooses us because we can’t – we won’t choose him! The bible speaks of humans as being dead in their sins (Eph 2:1). Dead people don’t make decisions!
God’s plan from the beginning of time is to redeem a people to Himself through the person and work of Jesus and to renew all of creation so that it’s free from the brokenness we see all around us. This unified plan is usually talked about as the “Covenant of Grace”. God promises – “I will be your God and you will be my people.” God doesn’t make wishful statements. He doesn’t make conditional statements so as, “Humans, if you are good, then I’ll be nice and bless you.” NO!! God lets us know what He will do in line with His mercy and grace.
Read His promises to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
And we look forward to the end of time where God promises to put an ultimate end to evil: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Rev 21:3-4
Reformed people have always emphasized that the law of God is good because it flows from His character. God didn’t just make up a bunch of rules for no reason. He’s didn’t flip a coin to decide if murder should be right or wrong. And since the bible teaches that we are made in His image, don’t you think He would know how we humans will flourish on this planet that He created?
Reformed theology teaches that there are three purposes for the law. First – God’s law is a guide for all people on how to live no matter what they believe.
Secondly, God’s law is a mirror for us. We look at the perfection that God expects from us and we see how far we fallen short. Jesus says we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt 5:48). James writes “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10). The law of God points us to our need for Jesus – we need help!
Finally, God’s law guides Christians as to how God wants us to live. We see this worked out by Jesus in the sermon on the mount – Matthew chapters 5-7. Don’t live with anger and lust and revenge. Love your enemies and give to the needy. The law guides us.
The final distinctive is that God gathers his people together. This has happened from the very beginning when God called Abraham and continued later when God gathered Israel after He brought them out of Egypt. God continues to gather people together for His purposes. There is a continuity from the OT people of God to the NT people of God today – one plan of salvation and one gathering of people.
We gather into local churches to worship God together, hear the word of God preached, love one another and serve our community together. In the church we have two sacraments: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Presbyterians see these as physical signs which God uses to seal the work of the Holy Spirit into our hearts. We see these as a continuation of the Old Testament signs of circumcision and the passover.
All through scripture, we see God working through families. The promises of God are for you and your children (Acts 2:39). Reformed theology understands the children of believes to be “holy” or set apart (1 Cor 7:14) and therefore should be baptized as infants just as male boys in Israel were circumcised as infants. But baptism doesn’t save – salvation is only by grace through faith! We pray for our children to grow in faith as they grow older.
Reformed churches are also committed to being connected to the larger church around the world. Presbyterian churches and the elders who lead them are held accountable to each other. We encourage each other, we pray for each other and support each other during difficult times.
These 6 distinctives have probably raised many questions in your mind – great! Now get to work studying both your bible and good reformed theological books. You should also check out several historical documents which summarize reformed theology: The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Cannons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.
Let me end with the first question & answer in the Heidelberg Catechism which brings deep truth down to personal comforting language:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, in life and in death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.