There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

Reformation Basics

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  • Reformation Basics

    Author: Rev. Frank Walker

    On the 31st of October in the year 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenburg church door and inadvertently began the Protestant Reformation.

    It's been almost five hundred years since Luther demanded reform. The world has changed a lot since then. Is there still a need for a Reformed Church?

    In just about every community across America, one can find churches of all sorts and persuasions -- Lutheran, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Baptist, Nazarene, Episcopal, and so forth. Many of these are more contemporary in the sense that they reflect modern attitudes and opinions.

    Doubtless, there are literally scores of reasons for going to other churches. The Methodist Church might be just around the corner. The Lutheran Church is bigger. The Baptist Church has more youth programs. And on and on we could go.

    So, why would anyone want to be Reformed? Maybe the question ought to be, Why should every Christian be Reformed?

    The Meaning of 'Reformed'

    Part of the answer to this question is in the meaning of the word Reformed. Yes, it is true that we look back to Martin Luther's courageous stand against the abuses of the papacy in the sixteenth century. Yes, we consider Zwingli a hero for smashing the images of Jesus, Mary and the various saints that were commonplace in the Swiss churches. And yes, we plead guilty to following the theology of John Calvin and Zacharias Ursinus.

    These are things of which we are not ashamed. But if they are all that we see, then we have missed the Reformation altogether. The Reformation is not about following any man, even a giant of the faith like Calvin. It is about obedience to the Word of God, and to the Word of God alone. Reformedmeans that our church and its doctrine are re-formed according to the Bible itself. We name the leaders of the Reformation because they were men who stood for the principle sola Scriptura.

    The Roman Catholic Church, both then and now, claims to adhere to the Scriptures too. The problem with Romanism is not that it fails to make such a claim, but that it undermines its claim in a number of ways -- adding the Apocrypha to the sixty-six canonical books, elevating tradition above the Word of God, and ascribing the pope's ex cathedra proclamations to divine inspiration. In the end, the Roman church acknowledges the Bible, but it's the Bible plus this, that and the other thing.

    Also, contrary to the practice of modern fundamentalism, the Reformed Church does not subtract from the Bible. We do not divide it up into seven dispensations, only one of which has much to say to us today. Nor do we promote a practical Christianity which makes ignorance of all but the fundamental truths of Scripture a virtue. Yes, we value the so-called essential doctrines of the faith, but we also believe that God demands that we learn as much of his Word as we, given our individual abilities, are capable of understanding. In this sense, there is no such thing as a non-essential doctrine.

    In the Reformed Church we put our money where our mouth is. We have embedded the sola Scriptura principle in our creeds. The Heidelberg catechism says, "22. What, then, is necessary for a Christian to believe? Ans. All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum." The Gospel was defined in Question 19 as the Bible in its entirety. We, therefore, are not free to pick and choose which parts we will keep and which ones we'll throw away. The same idea comes out in Question 91: "What are good works? Ans. Those only which proceed from true faith, and are done according to the Law of God, unto His glory, and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men." Adding to the Bible, subtracting from the Bible and substituting human laws in place of the Bible are things the Reformed Church cannot tolerate (Rev. 22:18, 19).

    And is this not the teaching of the Bible itself? Before his ascension, Jesus commanded the church through his apostles to teach all things that I have commanded you. When Paul told the elders at Ephesus that he had not shunned to declare the whole counsel of God, he was saying in effect that he had faithfully discharged the responsibility which Christ gave him. Paul had not taught all that Jesus taught plus a few things of his own. Neither did he leave out the doctrines which he thought irrelevant to the salvation message. He preached the whole Word of God. The Reformed Church today follows his example.

    A 'Reformed' Message

    The Reformed Church also has Reformed preaching. Because we preach only what the Bible teaches, our message is Biblical through and through. We do not try to create emotional responses in our hearers. Our preaching is not full of hype and psychological trickery. No, we preach truth -- truth as it comes to us from the pages of the Word of God. The power of conversion and edification is not in the preacher, but in the message as the Spirit of God applies it to the minds and lives of the saints.

    The message of the Reformed Church is therefore God-centered. Virtually every branch of the church outside the Reformed and Presbyterian circle has adopted some form of man-centered theology. Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians claim that the mere participation in the sacraments of the church in itself saves a person. They are divided as to whether it is the person partaking or the officiating priest who accomplishes the miracle, but a person can be saved by human effort of one kind or another. Methodist, Baptist and Independent churches, in a similar vein, teach that man comes to God first -- in response to an altar call in most cases -- and that God gives his consent and approval afterward. But it is the decision of the individual himself that makes the difference.

    We could go on and on, but as one of our own elders said to me just recently, Arminian churches say that they believe in salvation by grace but they don't accept the whole thing.

    Beloved, in the Reformed Church we do accept the whole thing. But it is also the whole thing which makes our message so unacceptable to others. We believe that man is completely condemned in sin (Rom. 3:9-20), that he can do nothing whatsoever to save himself (Gal. 3:1-14), that he is forever lost except the Spirit of God make him believe (John 3:5-8). We further believe that salvation is an act of God from beginning to end. God chooses whom he will save out of lost humanity (Rom. 9-11; Eph. 1:3-6; 1 Pet. 1:2). He himself provides full salvation (Rom. 3:21-26; 1 Cor. 5:18-21). He even brings the elect unto salvation and works in them repentance and faith (John 1:12-13; Phil. 2:13). Others, though they may agree that sin is a terrible thing, still like to think that man is just good enough to be able to do something for himself. He can present himself for baptism or make a 'decision for Christ,' as Billy Graham prefers; but he is not wholly lost.

    Question 61 of our catechism addresses this point: "How art thou righteous before God? Ans. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. That is: although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart."

    Some people mistakenly believe that the cornerstone of Reformed theology is the doctrine of predestination. We do believe in predestination, and we are not ashamed to say so. But the cornerstone of our message is not predestination; it is the majesty of God. The majesty of God is revealed to us as grace -- the unmerited favor of God through the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

    The 'Reformed' Savior

    Just as non-Reformed theologies want the Word plus or minus something, and grace plus or minus something, so they often want Christ plus or minus something. Roman Catholics have Christ plus the virgin Mary, saints, priests, angels, etc. Arminians say it is the blood of Christ which makes salvation possible, but it is my acceptance that makes the difference.

    The Reformed Church confesses what the Bible teaches once again. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6). In his sermon before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, Peter proclaimed: Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (v. 12). And again, remember Paul's word to the Corinthian church: For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11).

    It is based on these and many other verses, that Question 30 of our catechism reads, "Do such then believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else? Ans. No; although they may make their boast of Him, yet in act they deny the only Savior Jesus. For either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation."

    Let us do away with "Have I accepted Christ?" and ask the more important question: "Has Jesus Christ, the only Savior, accepted me?"

    Moreover, we must have the whole Christ. A few years ago, there were some teachers at a prominent seminary who were saying that it is possible to have Christ as your Savior but not as your Lord. Those who reject the Lordship of Christ and choose instead to live under the power of sin were dubbed 'carnal Christians,' some sort of sub-category within the Christian community. Although Question 64 of our catechism is addressing a different question, it speaks to this matter as well: "But does not this doctrine [justification by faith] make men careless and profane? Ans. No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted in Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness." Or as Paul wrote, Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not (Rom. 6:1, 2).

    For several decades, liberals have been busy trying to demythologize the New Testament. This is their way of removing from the Bible anything which offends them. The virgin birth and resurrection of Christ were among the first things to go. Other miracles and ascriptions of deity to Jesus soon followed. The attack continued until Bultmann finally admitted that we cannot be sure of a single thing Jesus ever said or did.

    There are only two choices: either the whole Christ or no Christ at all. The Reformed Church takes the whole Christ, and delights in doing so.

    The Reformed Church doesn't claim to be perfect. We have our faults, just as all other churches do. Nor do we believe that we are the only church. The Lord has his people scattered all over the world in many visible manifestations of his kingdom. But we do believe that our teachings are more Biblical than the teachings of any other church. We humbly thank God almighty for blessing us in this special way.

    But don't take our word for it. Search the Scriptures, examine our teachings and make up your own minds. Remember, though, that the only criteria by which we should be judged is the infallible, inerrant Word of the living God.
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