I recently had a conversation with a woman who is very active in church Bible studies. These are normally small group studies that are based on an inductive Bible study method. People are free to draw conclusions about what the Bible means based on their own self discovery without necessarily being guided by the traditional historical interpretations of the church.
I was surprised that this woman had never heard of Arminianism despite having taught various Bible studies for fifteen years. I was also surprised to learn that the elders of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church which I used to attend had never heard the words “Reformed Theology.” These represent the two most common views on soteriology or the study of salvation in the Christian faith.
Definition of Reformed Theology
To put it simply, Reformed Theology is how the founders of the Protestant church understood the great doctrines of the Christian faith. It is the theology upon which the Protestant Church was built. It is expressed in the great confessions of the Protestant faith such as the Westminster Confession, the Belgian Confession, The London Baptist Confession, the Canons of Dort, the Heidelberg Confession, the Nicene Creed, and the Apostles Creed. These documents explain the basic teachings of the Bible regarding such biblical truths as the nature of the Trinity, justification by faith, unconditional election, the preservation of the saints, the limited scope of Christ’s atonement, irresistible grace, and the total depravity of mankind.
Unfortunately, the modern evangelical church has for the most part neglected these confessions and the orthodox doctrines they represent. Few churches recite them as part of the worship service or teach them in catechism class anymore. They are rarely if ever referenced in preaching or in Bible study. Consequently, most evangelicals have ceased to believe or practice much of what they teach.
For instance, the vast majority of evangelical Christians believe that people either accept or reject Christ based on the exercise of their own free will. But that is not the faith the Reformers confessed. In fact, that teaching was condemned by the church at the Council of Dort in 1619. The Canons of Dort say, “In accordance with this decree God graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of the elect and inclines them to believe, but by a just judgment God leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen.” (Canons of Dort, Article 6).
The Reformers believed it is God who chooses to save some people and to leave others in their sins based solely upon his own determination. The Westminster Catechism puts it this way, “All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ.” (Chapter 10.1).
In the same way that God chooses to save some, he consigns others to unbelief. This is very evident in the way Christ veiled the truth in parables so that many of his hearers were unable to understand what he said. Matthew 13 says, “Then the disciples came and said to him, Why do you speak to them in parables? And he answered them, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Mt 13:10-11).
On the other hand, Christ very plainly revealed himself to others, like the woman at the well. When she said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (John 4:25) Jesus’ response to her was very straightforward and unambiguous, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:26). He kept nothing hidden from her because she was one of his chosen ones.
The doctrine of irresistible grace says that it is not possible for those whom God has chosen to resist his will, nor is it possible for those whom he has not chosen to come to faith in him. The best example of a man who could not resist the will of God is the Apostle Paul. He was on his way to the city of Damascus to arrest Christians when Jesus suddenly stopped him in his tracks with a blinding light and a voice from heaven that said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 26:14). Saul simply said, “Who are you Lord,” to which the voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” So Saul did what he was told. Later Ananias showed up in response to a vision he had received from God, and said to Saul, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”(Acts 9:17). Then Saul arose, ate something, and was immediately baptized. Saul never took the initiative in any of these actions. God called him, commanded him, gave him back his sight, and filled him with the Holy Spirit before he did anything. He had been chosen by Christ and his only option was to obey. This is irresistible grace.
The doctrine of irresistible grace is expressed in Article 10 of the Canons of Dort, “But the cause of this undeserved election is exclusively the good pleasure of God. This does not involve God’s choosing certain human qualities or actions from among all those possible as a condition of salvation, but rather involves adopting certain particular persons from among the common mass of sinners as God’s own possession. The Westminster Confession puts it this way, “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” (Westminster Confessions 10.2) Saul was a passive participant until he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Only then did he begin exercising his faith by preaching in the synagogue. (Acts 9:20). He could not resist God’s call despite the fact that he was a sworn enemy of Jesus Christ.
If it is true that God calls only some to salvation, then it follows that the sacrifice Christ made on the cross covers only the sins of those whom he has chosen. Those who have not been chosen still must pay for their own sins. If Christ’s sacrifice covered everyone’s sins, then Christ’s death on behalf of the elect would have been superfluous and a terrible waste. If, on the other hand, atonement is available to all but depends on whether or not they accept it, then his sacrifice is ineffectual for those who reject him. Since God is sovereign, nothing he does is ineffectual. The Westminster Catechism 10.1 says, “All those whom God hath predestined unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death.” This idea that Christ’s sacrifice covers only the sins of his chosen ones is called “limited atonement.”
Total depravity does not mean that man is incapable of doing anything good. It means that no man is capable of humbling himself before a righteous God in genuine repentance. Romans 3:10-11 says,
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good,
not even one.”
Reformed theology teaches that sin has so radically corrupted the human soul that repentance is impossible unless the Holy Spirit first imparts a new nature that can respond to God. Jesus told Nicodemas, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 5-8)
Spiritual rebirth precedes believing faith. It is an invisible process that takes place at God’s direction and is prompted by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word.
Justification by Faith
This doctrine is understood in much the same way by both evangelical and reformed believers and so does not require explanation other than to say that all men are born sinners and cannot achieve righteousness on their own. The only righteousness available to them is the righteousness of Jesus Christ who lived a perfect life and then offered up his life as a sacrifice for the justification of the elect.
Preservation of the Saints
This doctrine is more commonly known as the perseverance of the saints. I prefer the term preservation over perseverance because, like every other aspect of salvation, it is a result of the sovereignty of God. Preservation means that God keeps us saved. Perseverance means that we remain saved. In either case, the true believer cannot lose his salvation. But the reason why is important. If salvation is entirely a work of God, then he cannot fail to bring his work to a successful conclusion. He holds us in an unbreakable grip. As Paul says in Romans 8, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38). He explains his reasons for such confidence in the preceding verses. If God did not withhold his most precious Son but gave him up for us while we were still at enmity with him, why would he withhold any good gift from us now that we have been reconciled to him? The Judge Himself has justified us. We have no reason to fear condemnation.
The Westminster Catechism expresses this truth beautifully. Chapter 17.1 says, “They, whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.”
Why Theology is Important
These doctrines should inform our study of the scriptures. They provide the guard rails to prevent us from going astray and a context to help us reconcile seemingly contradictory verses of scripture.
For example, how are we to understand a verse like 1 Timothy 4:9-10 if we do not put it into the larger context of scripture? At first glance it seems to be telling us that Christ saves both believers and unbelievers, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” The doctrine of justification by faith alone tells us that only believers are saved. So in what sense does God save all people? And what is special about the salvation of those who believe? Well, we already know that the salvation of those who believe is forever. So from what are those who don’t believe saved? They are spared from immediate destruction by the wrath of God which would consume them if it weren’t for his patience and mercy. Paul explains this seeming contradiction in Romans 9:22-24, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy…?”
Bible study that is unguided by sound theology is prone to error. I have heard all kinds of error taught in small group Bible studies. In small groups, everyone’s contribution is welcome. But not everyone’s contribution is equal. Some believers are more firmly grounded in scripture and their insights are more accurate. Many of these groups foster a “there are no wrong answers” type of environment. But there is only one truth, not multiple versions of the truth. God wants us to understand the Bible one way and one way only – the way he intended it. That is why we must respect the contributions of those great saints who came before us and whose wisdom has withstood the test of time.
The meaning God’s word does not evolve with time. It remains the same throughout the ages because God does not change. If Bible study produces novel teaching, it is producing heresy. Yet Christian bookstores continue to pump out the latest Christian fad from Church Growth strategies to Seeker Friendly to the Purpose Driven Church to Contemplative Spirituality to the New Apostolic Revival. You would be hard pressed to find Christian classics like the works of St. Augustine or Martin Luther or John Calvin or any of the reformers or Puritans on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Yet the true church has been built on the shoulders of these great saints, not the promoters of the latest evangelism technique or church growth method.