The Distinctives of a Reformed Church, Part 1
(Taken from What is a Reformed Church? by Malcolm Watts)
Contributed By Rev. Gabriel Gan
In our day, the term Reformed is used freely and without thought. Great variety exists among churches that claim this title. In many cases, the term means little more than some adherence to the “five points of Calvinism.” The term has lost its great historical richness and depth as the struggles of the Reformation have faded into distant history. The stand taken by the Reformers is virtually forgotten, and many consider it irrelevant today. If, however, we have a true and earnest desire to maintain the faith and fight the adversaries of God’s Word, we would do well to look back to those who so clearly searched the Scriptures and stood firmly for the great truths of the Word of God.
If asked what a Reformed church is, one could give a short biblical answer from 1 Timothy 3:15: “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” A true church, Reformed according to God’s Word, is the dwelling place of God, maintaining and declaring the truth which He has been pleased to reveal. However, over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term Reformed was understood to have at least three quite specific meanings, so it will be helpful to take a brief look at the historic use of the term.
In the 1500s, people first used Reformed to refer to churches that, under the vigorous preaching of the early Reformers, separated from the corrupt Church of Rome. Churches that embraced Luther’s doctrine soon became known as Reformed. In the mid-1500s, the term assumed a new emphasis: It was used to identify the so-called Calvinist wing of the Reformation.The term Reformed evolved further until it came to identify churches that were Puritan in belief and in practice. The Puritan movement inherited Calvin’s theological legacy but expanded his teaching on law, grace, and the covenants. Believing the visible church was still corrupted by the remains of Popery, Puritans sought even more thorough reformation according to the Word of God.
In all the cases considered above, we can see common distinctives between churches that have been called Reformed. It is true that, proceeding historically, the later Reformed churches were more consistent in the outworking of these principles, yet it is clear that these emphases were present in each. Today, when the term is so loosely used, it is important to consider what these common distinctives were, and to understand that these essential attributes of a Reformed church are what make a biblical church.
1) Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura): A Reformed church must acknowledge Scripture, God’s written Word, as the sole authoritative expression of the divine will for all aspects of church life.
The Reformers believed the Scriptures to be the pure Word of God. As Luther put it, they “ascribe[d] the entire Holy Scripture to the Holy Spirit.” As for Calvin, he too affirmed the total veracity of the Scriptures: “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and it has nothing of man mixed with it.”
For the Reformers, then, and also for the later Puritans, the Bible was infallible and inerrant. They consistently upheld its unique authority over the church’s life and mission. The Puritans sought consistently to apply this principle. Whatever lacked biblical authority they declared to be ungodly and unlawful, and they disowned human inventions and traditions.
2) God’s Transcendence: A Reformed church emphasizes the divine sovereignty, majesty, and glory, and therefore the great gulf existing between God in His transcendence and man in his sin and misery.
This was the distinctive doctrine of the Reformation. It was present in Luther’s teaching, but it was even more prominent in Calvin’s. Believing Scripture to be the ultimate source of all true knowledge of God, Calvin sought to ascertain exactly what Scripture revealed, and thus he drew aside the veil, as it were, to show us God in all the glory of His being. “Surely,” he wrote, “his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him by our own senses. Indeed, his spiritual nature forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him. For the same reason, he quite often assigns himself a dwelling place in heaven.”
The Westminster divines, with astonishing precision of thought and language, articulated the truth that God really is God. Consider this grand and awesome statement: “God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, not deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory, in, by, unto, and upon them: he is the alone foundation of being, of whom, through whom, and to whom, are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them, whatsoever himself pleaseth.” (to be continued…)