What does it mean to be “Reformed”?
Geoff Willour 7/20/12
What does it mean to be “Reformed,” and what is a “Reformed Christian”? Many today seem to think that being “Reformed” simply means believing in the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” or “Doctrines of Sovereign Grace” otherwise known by the acrostic “TULIP” (which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). Acceptance of these important biblical doctrines is certainly a part of what it means to be “Reformed.” But historically-speaking (if my church history is correct on this matter) it would have been viewed as nonsense by the leaders of the early Reformed churches for a Christian to call himself “Reformed” if he did not belong to a confessionally Reformed church. In other words, being “Reformed” doesn’t just mean accepting the major points of Reformed theology (like the Calvinistic “TULIP” and covenant theology as opposed to dispensationalism). It also means accepting a Reformed doctrine of the church.
I would contend that to be consistently “Reformed” involves a number of things: (1) Acceptance of Reformed theology (with its biblically-based emphasis on the doctrine of God’s all-encompassing sovereignty, including especially God’s sovereignty in salvation); which is closely related to (2) Acceptance of Reformed soteriology (i.e., “doctrine of salvation”), including the “TULIP” and its emphasis on sovereign grace. All of this is built upon (3) Adherence to a Reformed hermeneutic (“hermeneutics” having to do with how one approaches the interpretation of the Bible). The Reformed hermeneutic stresses the organic and covenantal unity and continuity between the Old and New Testaments, in opposition to a “dispensational” hermeneutic which sees radical discontinuity between Old and New Testaments, and which relies on an overly-literalistic approach to biblical prophecy. But the final ingredient in the recipe for being “Reformed” is (4) Adherence to a Reformed ecclesiology (i.e., “doctrine of the church”), which will be evidenced by the consistently Reformed believer belonging in responsible membership to a Reformed church.
Today the word “Reformed” is often used in the Christian world simply as a description of believers who accept the five points of Calvinism (the “TULIP”), but who may be affiliated with a variety of non-Reformed evangelical or charismatic churches. But can a Christian who is a member of (say) an independent broadly-evangelical church rightly call himself “Reformed”? Well, let me try to answer that question by asking another one: Could a Christian who belonged to a non-Lutheran church rightly call himself a “Lutheran” just because he accepted some important aspects of Lutheran theology. Or could a believer consistently describe himself as a “Baptist” because he accepted the Baptist position on believer’s baptism, even if he himself held membership in an Episcopal church? While many Christians today are not fans of denominational labels, at least those labels ought to mean something. And one of the things that being “Reformed” ought to mean is that one holds his/her membership in a Reformed church. “But what about Christians who accept the doctrines of grace but don’t belong to Reformed churches? What should we call them?” Well, maybe we should call them confused; but in the interest of charity why not simply call them “Calvinistic believers”? (Of course, I could get this post really bogged down by pursuing the question of what we should call members of Reformed churches who are Arminian-leaning in their theology and soteriology, but I’ll leave it to the reader to wrestle with that one.)