What is Reformed Theology and Why Does it Matter?
Due to the lack of training in modern, American churches, many Christians do not understand the importance of working through a coherent view of their faith or, better, the Christian system of truth. As we look at the state of affairs that exist within Christianity in American culture, we now see the consequences of this behavior and those consequences are fairly disconcerting. The purpose of this article to is to introduce the reader to a working definition of Reformed Theology; to talk about what distinguishes it from non-reformed theology; and finally, why it matters.
Reformed theology is, as it sounds, a child of the reformation. However, that it is a child of the reformed should not in any sense be understood to mean that it did not exist prior to the reformation. Instead, when you think about reformed theology as a system you should think about those components that have now been organized into a system as having existed prior to the system it has come to encapsulate. The two most prominent documents that encapsulate what it means to hold to Reformed Theology are the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession.
Due to space limitations, this overview will cover the principles of the reformation as well as a controversy that arose over the Reformed view of salvation known as the Remonstrance. The Reformation arose initially over the issue of justification. Brown observes, “The turning point came through the advice of his superior to study and teach the Scriptures. Through them, Luther encountered God not as an alien but as a friend, not as judge but as a Savior who forgave those who turned to him in simple faith. This new insight found expression in the doctrine of justification by faith which became the keystone of the Reformation.” From this turning point came the basic principles of the Reformation: Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria. We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. Or we could change it up and say, according to Scripture alone, it is for the glory of God alone that, by the work of Christ alone, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone. Justification comes by faith alone, not faith plus works, not faith plus who we are or anything whatsoever that we might do. Salvation is entirely within the control of God. And we know this because Scripture alone as our final authority expressed reveals it to the case.
Reformed theology rejected the idea that human works could be comingled with the work of Christ in order to procure sufficient grace to produce justification. The declaration of justification was made by God in the work of Christ and nothing else. The view that God alone acted to save and to declare just those whom he elects or predestines created some concern in certain parts of the church outside of Roman Catholicism. One of those voices of dissent came from the Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius. If God is completely sovereign in salvation, then what becomes of free will? Arminius had been heavily influenced by Dirk Coornhert who had been a key player in the anti-Spanish revolt of William the Silent. Coornhert advocated a view of free will that gave it virtual autonomy from divine grace. Another influence on Arminius was Luis de Molina, whose views of human freedom and divine foreknowledge run contrary to Reformed theology. Arminius held that the choice to believe was not caused by God; it was rather a choice born of synergistic cooperation between the divine and the human wills. As a result of this understanding, Arminius’ followings would come to reject a Reformed soteriology, remaining much closer to the Catholic position than most Christians realize. In 1610, the followers of Arminius published a theological manifesto called The Remonstrance. This outlined their disagreement with Reformed Orthodoxy. The views are summarized as follows:
- God elects those whom he foreknows will believe and persevere in the faith.
- Christ atoned for the salvation of all sinners without exception.
- Fallen humans have no innate power to think, will, or do anything good.
- Divine grace enables fallen sinners to think, will, and do good. This grace can be resisted.
- Believers are given grace to help persevere to the end; whether a true believer can resist or reject this grace is a matter that needs further investigation.
Item 4 is the Arminian invention of prevenient grace. Some have thought that 3 is Reformed or Calvinistic in nature. It is not. The adjective innate removes it from consideration as being logically consistent with Reformed soteriology. These points were argued before the Synod of Dort (1618-1619). The Synod of Dort condemned the articles and exiled the Remonstrant ministers. The Synod responded to each of the five articles of the Remonstrants with five canons of its own:
- God’s election of individuals to salvation is unconditional.
- While Christ’s death is sufficient for the salvation of all men, it is only efficacious in saving those whom God elects.
- The effects of sin result in the total depravity of the human person, making men unable to will good apart from divine grace.
- The grace of God that regenerates the human heart is not resistible.
- True saving faith is the kind of faith that is permanent. It ensures that the believer will never truly and finally fall away from grace but will endure to the end.
The most fundament difference between Reformed Theology and Arminian Theology is twofold: there is a difference in understanding God’s sovereignty as it relates to salvation and there is a difference in how the two understand human nature as it relates to the effects of sin. Reformed theology affirms that God is sovereign over the salvation of individuals from beginning to end. Arminian theology injects the human will into it soteriology combined with its concept of prevenient grace. Reformed theology affirms that fallen sinners are enemies of God, unable and unwilling to respond to God in a positive manner. Arminian theology believes that God has done all that needs doing where salvation is concerned. At that remains is for human beings to exercise their free will and cooperate with divine grace, choosing to believe the gospel.
There are a number of reasons it is important for Christians to understand Reformed Theology. It affects how we think about our own salvation. We acknowledge we played no part in our own redemption. It was God from start to finish. It affects how we witness and share our faith. We are encouraged to share the truth in love without fear of results. We know God saves the elect, not our techniques or our arguments or even our tactics. Finally, it affects how we do church. We do not build programs design to be attractive to human beings who are actually hostile to God and His word. Instead, our communities are designed based on a sound exegesis of Scripture. Reformed Christians recognize that all things are created for God’s glory. We understand that we are to image God to creation and to God. Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever!
 Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1990-©20), 146.
 Nicholas R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, newly revised ed. (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications Ltd, 2016), 129.