If you’re asking the question “What is Reformed Theology?” you’re likely to come across a lot of different answers. If you ask those who aren’t themselves Reformed, you might get the impression that Reformed theology is just the belief in predestination, they might say that it is a overemphasis on the sovereignty of God, perhaps going so far as to say that is a denial of man’s free will.
If you ask those are Reformed, they might say it is a focus on the grace of God or that is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they might list off five ‘solas’ or they might list the five points of Calvinism (TULIP). If they’re feeling particularly dismissive they might just say that Reformed theology is biblical Christianity, and perhaps they’re right, but that’s not a particularly helpful definition, given that many groups within Christianity claim ‘biblical Christianity’for their own.
So what is it?
If we wanted to define Reformed theology in a historical manner, we might say that Reformed theology is the name for a number of historic Christian doctrines present since the inception of the faith, seemingly lost for a time, brought back into their rightful place at the center of the Christian faith during the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps best expressed by documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity.
Unfortunately, that sort of historical overview doesn’t tell us much.
On a doctrinal level, it could be said that at its essence Reformed theology is the union of a high view of the authority of Scripture, of the sovereignty of God, of the fallenness of man, of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the covenanting decree of the Father in election via the means of evangelism, and of the outworking of this salvation in the form of good works, the spread of the church, the making of disciples, and the establishment of the kingdom of God.
Authority of Scripture: Reformed theology must begin with a high view of the authority of Scripture, for it is from Scripture that all other aspects of the faith are drawn. This view sees Scripture as the infallible Word of God and the ultimate authority for the faith (sola scriptura); this is in contrast to the Roman Catholic view placing tradition on par with Scripture, radically charismatic views allowing for new prophecy, or liberal views placing human reason above the Scriptures.
Sovereignty of God: The sovereignty of God is pivotal for Reformed theology, for it is from God through his word that all the doctrines flow. God is in complete control, with all power and glory belonging to him (soli deo gloria). This means that nothing that happens is outside of his plan, that everything happens for the reason of his glory, and yet that the sinfulness of man is our own responsibility.
Fallenness of Man: This sinfulness resulted in and stems from the Fall described in Genesis 1, which resulted in Adam’s sin being imputed to all generations of mankind, commonly referred to as ‘original sin’ which resulted in all humans being born with a ‘sin nature’. This sin nature is total, in that all aspects of our humanity were corrupted, to include our bodies, our minds, and our wills.
Salvation/Evangelism: Because of this sinfulness mankind was alienated from God, yet in his love he graciously covenanted with fallen man (sola gratia), such that all who would put their faith in him (whether in Old Testament times or New) would be saved through that faith, and that faith alone (sola fide). The object of this faith is Jesus Christ (solo Christo), who was sacrificed in order to atone for the sins of man and thereby present them as justified before God, clothed in his righteousness. This faith originates through the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of those chosen by God in his mercy. God changes the heart of his chosen so that they will have faith, else they continue in sin, and God has chosen to use mankind – through the preaching of the gospel – as his means of spreading the faith; thus the Christian is called to evangelism, and can be assured of results.
Good Works: Upon this changing of the heart by God the natural result is that the person turns from their sinful habits and turns toward good works. This is a process (of sanctification), in which the person will still inevitably sin, but will grow in Christian maturity. The good works done do not merit salvation, but are an inevitable outworking of it.
The Church/Kingdom of God: Those who come to faith are the church, and are called to commune together and grow in the Word of God. This expansion of the community of believers inevitably results in the expansion of the kingdom of God on earth; when Christ returns those unbelievers will be resurrected to condemnation in hell, while believers will be resurrected to life on the new earth.
There are of course those who would object that this short breakdown glosses over some aspects that should be more pronounced, that it highlights things that aren’t central, or that it unfairly excludes non-Calvinistic traditions which claim Reformed heritage (ie, Arminianism). These objections are fair, but the above should still offer a basic and solid overview of what Reformed theology entails.
In the end, the heart of Reformed theology can be seen in the italicized section above: salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the covenanting decree of the Father in election via the means of evangelism.