2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Believers interpret the Bible in many different ways. But God is a god of order and intended it to be understood in one way only. That became abundantly clear to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who encountered Jesus shortly after His resurrection. Like most of the rest of Jesus followers in those days, they had an incorrect understanding of scripture. They thought the Messiah would be a powerful political leader who would come to set his people free from the tyranny of Rome and establish His own kingdom in its place. But Jesus had to take them back through the entire Old Testament to show them how they had misinterpreted God’s Word.
Today is no different. There are many different interpretations of end time events, for example. Some people say the Tribulation occurred in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Jesus said this particular event would indeed take place before His own generation would pass away. But He also made some other predictions about war and natural disasters and the gospel being preached over the entire world that have not yet been fulfilled 2000 years later. Jesus Himself warned in several parables that His own return would be delayed for a very long time. So, just like parts of divine revelation were shrouded in mystery in Jesus’ day, so that part of God’s plan that has not yet been fulfilled is still a mystery today. The one thing we do know for sure is that we are to be prepared for Christ to return at any moment.
That is why it is so important to have a sound theology when interpreting the Bible. I believe that theology is Reformed Theology. That was the understanding of the apostles, early church fathers, and sixteenth century Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Let me briefly summarize Reformed Theology for you. This material is covered in an informal way in the book entitled An Unexpected Journey by Robert Godfrey, which I would highly recommend, if you have not read it yet. It is not a technical book, but a narrative account of the author’s own encounter with the Christian Reformed Church in his own home town as a youth and how it affected his outlook on the gospel, worship, and the life of the church.
Of course what I am about to offer is an oversimplification, but the basic tenet of Reformed Theology is that we contribute absolutely nothing to our own salvation. It is entirely the work of a sovereign God who sets His love upon us while we are still spiritually dead and unable to do anything to effect our own salvation. He gives us spiritual life through His Holy Spirit, enabling us to repent of our sins and come to Him in faith. But even that act of faith is a gift from God, not a product of our own choice as most professing Christians believe.(Eph 2:8b) He then removes our sins, putting them on Christ, and clothes us with Christ’s own righteousness instead. He does this by uniting us with Christ in His death and resurrection when we repent of our sins. If we are truly born again, we are also united with Christ in His sufferings. So although we share in all the eternal blessings in Christ such as justification, sanctification, adoption, and a sinless resurrection body, we also share in Christ’s sufferings on this earth if we genuinely belong to Him.
The fact that we are one with Christ means that we have new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit who indwells us and gives us the power to glorify God by manifesting such fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, meekness, faithfulness and self-control. These are all evidences of genuine conversion and without them there is no real faith. That is why it is not inappropriate to assume that apart from a changed life, there is no real conversion. This is the difference between what most professing Christians believe and what Reformed Christians believe. Most Christians have been taught that becoming a believer is simply a matter of “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” But they do this through a simple prayer, not by committing their lives to the Lordship of Christ through faithful obedience to the Word of God. In fact, this prayer is found nowhere in the Bible. Salvation always comes through the preaching of the word in the biblical accounts, not some simple formula. But for many modern day church goers, this prayer has itself become a once-and-for-all portal into the gates of eternity, whether one’s subsequent life shows any interest in the things of Christ or not.
Since everything we receive at the time of our conversion including even the faith that we exercise when we come to Christ are all gifts from God, there is absolutely no room for pride in the Christian life. In fact, pride is the one sin God hates more than any other, and for good reason. After all, only He knows the depth of our depravity and the priceless cost of our redemption through the blood of His own Son. So for us to presume we can merit His approval when He has paid so dearly to redeem us is absolutely abhorrent to Him. That is why Jesus rejected the righteousness of the Pharisees and commended the faith of the Publican who beat on his chest saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Lk 18:13) It is also why He blessed the poor in spirit (humble) (Mt 5:3) and those who mourn (express heartfelt sorrow for their sin) (Mt 5:4) in the Beatitudes. It is also the reason why David said, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17).
Just the idea that my salvation was God’s choice and not my own has transformed my relationship with Christ. It brings tremendous humility to know that in my natural state I am totally depraved and unable to do anything to win God’s favor. The idea that He reached out to me on His own initiative when I was dead in my sins, unresponsive to Him and incapable of even exercising faith on my own behalf makes me forever grateful for His mercy and love. You see, I was hopelessly lost without Him!! Every prayer I pray now begins with thanks for His great salvation. It also makes me realize that many people who profess faith in Christ and attend church regularly have never really been born again because they think they chose Christ when they “accepted Him as their Savior,” when in fact they never even felt a shred of remorse for their sins. Remorse and repentance are two elements of genuine conversion that are found in every gospel account of salvation. Yet these same people typically go to church but have no interest in following Christ when it means they may have to pay a price for their obedience.
I would say the hallmarks of a Reformed Church are strict adherence to the Word of God in preaching, prayer, praise, and worship, coming into His presence with humble hearts, and practicing close fellowship including giving and receiving comfort, encouragement, meals and material resources. These are the features of the Reformed faith that come out so clearly in the book, An Unexpected Journey and that characterize the worship of our own church, Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, IL. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and to listen to one of the sermons by our pastor, Craig Troxel at bethelopc.org/ministries. Then consider visiting a reformed church in your area or our church if you live in the Chicago area.