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What does it mean to be "Reformed"? (1)


I think it was A. W. Pink who once said that people love God everywhere, except on his throne. I think he was right. We love God when he performs miracles or when he heals. We love God when he blesses us with material prosperity. We love him when he answers our prayers in precisely the way we prefer and at precisely the time we think is best. And we love God when he reveals his glory. But when he sits enthroned, ruling in sovereignty over the affairs of men and women and nations, providentially orchestrating the course of human history, people protest. Much of this comes from a profound misunderstanding of divine sovereignty and from caricatures of it by those who have resisted it most strenuously.

For many people, divine sovereignty often conjures up images of a stern ruler, a cruel taskmaster who always insists on getting his own way with no regard for the desires or feelings of his subjects; they think of a hard-driving tyrant with whom it would be impossible to carry on a conversation or have a meaningful personal relationship. But a careful look at how God's sovereignty is presented in Scripture yields a feeling of confidence, deepened trust and love and hope in God.

Consider the transformation of Jonathan Edwards when he came to understand the depths and beauty of divine sovereignty.

“From my childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God's sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me.

But I remember the time very well when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God's Spirit in it; but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God's sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce[ly] ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God's showing mercy to whom he will show mercy, and hardening whom he will. God's absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes; at least it is so at times. But I have often, since that first conviction, had quite another kind of sense of God's sovereignty than I had then. I have often since had not only a conviction, but a delightful conviction. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding[ly] pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”

Those who affirm divine sovereignty in this way are typically said to be Reformed. But what does it mean? In today’s evangelical world there are numerous and quite diverse answers to that question. For example:

(1) Many would say that being “reformed” merely indicates that you have a comparatively high view of the sovereignty of God and his providential oversight of human history. Thus for some, one might conceivably be soteriologically Arminian and yet “reformed” in terms of their high view of God’s control of human affairs and the centrality of his glory as the primary aim of redemptive history.

(2) Some insist that being “reformed” means that you embrace the fundamental principles of the Protestant Reformation as expressed in the famous five “solas”: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria.

(3) Others go a bit further and insist that one must embrace at least three of the famous five points of Calvinism, while others argue that four are essential (the doctrine of particular or definite or limited atonement typically being the least popular of the five).

(4) Perhaps the most common view is that anyone who is a card-carrying “Five Point Calvinist” is reformed. They stop there, indicating that the word “reformed” is exclusively a soteriological term describing what one believes about the doctrine of salvation.

(5) Then we come to a much smaller group who, in addition to the Five Points, would include such doctrines as covenant theology, infant baptism, the regulative principle in worship, and some form of sabbatarianism. I’m sure there are other issues that one could cite, but these will suffice to make the point.

(6) Finally, there are a few who, in addition to everything that has already been said, would insist that to be “truly” or “thoroughly” reformed one must embrace the confessional statements of the Reformed churches of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Confession of Faith (see, for example, R. Scott Clark’s book, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice [P & R, 2008]). Some would also include the Synod of Dort.

My aim in this series of articles is not to debate or argue for or against any of these perspectives. My aim is much more practical in the sense that I want to define the term “reformed” in terms of how it impacts and influences our approach to daily living under the sovereignty of God. Here is what I mean:

If Psalm 115:3 is true (“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases”), what difference does it make in how we conduct ourselves on earth? If Nebuchadnezzar was right when he said that God’s “dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’”, I say, if Nebuchadnezzar was right, how does it affect our understanding of life and our relationships and responsibilities as Christian men and women?

My proposal makes no claims to being exhaustive. I’m certain numerous other things could and perhaps should be said. But I want to highlight ten principles that in my opinion are indispensably “reformed.” That is to say, you may wish to add much to the definition of this word, but I’m persuaded you cannot subtract these ten truths and still call yourself “reformed”. More to come.


Thanks Sam, a much needed refresher. Particularly for those who own the label 'Reformed' without any real history or depth of theological understanding. Looking forward to this series.

Looking forward to learning more about reformed theology. Have always wondered where the term "reformed" came from. What are we "reformed from"? Why do we call it reformed theology.

Looking forward to reading more!

I am so looking forward to these thoughts, since I fall somewhere between 3 and 4. My Pentecostal friends would say I'm at 6, my reformed friends at 1. Thank you for taking the time to clarify reformed thinking.

I'm really looking forward to this series! I look forward to being able to point people to it and say "this is what I mean when I say I'm reformed..." Because being reformed is more than (but not less than) a certain soteriology, it's a worldview.

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