10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Reformed Theology

Is Calvinism the cold, rigid approach to Christianity it’s made out to be?

“Reformed theology reorients the believer to a God-centered view of reality. As Michael Horton writes, “God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around.” The end purpose of human life is to glorify God. The reason this isn’t bleak for us is that God is glorified by our enjoying him eternally. In Desiring God John Piper explains it this way, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Enjoying. Satisfied. These are good things for us.”

 

Reformed theology — or Calvinism — gets a bad rap. Calvinists are often seen as condescending, believing themselves to be part of God’s “elect.” It’s a cold, rigid theology that leaves no room for grace, oppresses women, and eliminates the need for evangelism. Or is it?

A number of people (see here, here, and here) have written of a Calvinist revival happening in Christianity. The theology’s main proponents are some of the most prolific, publicized (and polarizing) voices: Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll, to name a few. Though Calvinism and its counterpart, Arminianism, are roughly equal in numbers of adherents, Calvinists get most of the press — much of it misleading.

So, here are 10 things to know about Reformed theology:

1. Reformed and Calvinist are generally used interchangeably.

First, Calvinism is a system of theology, not a denomination. And it was one stream of theology to come out of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Lutheran, Anabaptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches all sprung up as a result of the teachings of the Reformers, who, in addition to Calvin, included theologians like Martin Luther, John Knox, and Ulrich Zwingli.

Broadly speaking, Calvinism encompasses the whole of Reformed theology and its doctrinal distinctives. Many more churches hold to Reformed teaching than just the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church. For example, some of today’s most outspoken Calvinists are Southern Baptist.

2. Reformed theology is more than the five points (or TULIP).

Calvinism is often distilled into the moniker TULIP — Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. But, this systematic packaging is reductive and doesn’t nearly represent all that Reformed Christians believe. It is not creed, nor was it chosen by Calvinists to summarize their beliefs. In fact, the teachings that later become TULIP were a response to the Arminian Five Articles of Remonstrance.

While the five points summarize well the Calvinist principles of faith, they don’t say much about how that faith is expressed. They don’t express the high role of the sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — as a means of grace, a physical portrayal of the promise of salvation that is the gospel. And while the five points are true, they are not the truth. Speaking on being a Calvinist, John Piper says, “We begin as Bible-believing Christians who want to put the Bible above all systems of thought.”

(Also of notable importance to Reformed theology are the five solas — scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, God’s glory alone. See the Westminster Confession of Faith for a more comprehensive exploration of the doctrines to which Calvinists ascribe.)

3. There is a broad spectrum of beliefs within Reformed Christianity.

Calvinism is a 500-year-old theology that people may think they’ve defined with an easy-to-remember acronym, but it’s still an ongoing point of contention. Not all Calvinists are five-pointers — some are seven-point Calvinists, as John Piper half-jokingly calls himself, and still others don’t necessarily “wave the Calvinist flag,” but hold to a Reformed understanding of the Bible.

There are New Calvinists (also called the Young, Restless, Reformed) and “Old” Calvinists, the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America — an eclectic mix of doctrines falls under the Reformed superstructure. There are Reformed Christians who believe human free will and divine predestination are binary, and those who find a way to reconcile the two. Some Calvinists hold to the idea of reprobation (or double predestination), and many more don’t. As divisions exist within Christianity, so too among its Reformed.

4. Reformed theology is humbling, but it’s also about ultimate joy.

God’s glory and our joy are inextricably linked. So, while the Reformed view of God’s ultimate sovereignty humbles the believer, who has nothing to do with his own salvation, it does not diminish his worth. Christians are carrying out an ultimate purpose that results in God’s glory and our satisfaction.

Reformed theology reorients the believer to a God-centered view of reality. As Michael Horton writes, “God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around.” The end purpose of human life is to glorify God. The reason this isn’t bleak for us is that God is glorified by our enjoying him eternally. In Desiring God John Piper explains it this way, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Enjoying. Satisfied. These are good things for us.

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