What makes a Reformed church different?
Special guest article by Samuel Watterson….
A faithful Reformed church is different to Roman Catholicism, different to liberal Protestantism, different to the various Baptist and Evangelical groups, and different to the cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. There are many teachings and practices that make a Reformed church different. The 16th century Reformation had five famous slogans, called the “five solas”, that captured that distinctiveness: sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria. A brief explanation of these will demonstrate their enduring relevance today.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
For Reformed churches, the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture (the Christian Bible) are alone the ultimate authority. Scripture is God’s word and therefore carries His authority as the God of truth who cannot lie. This is how the Bible describes itself throughout. No mere human writing has this quality, all must be subject to the final authority of the word of God.
Since the words of Scripture are God’s own words, it is also inerrant or infallible. It is perfectly without mistakes or errors even though it was written down by humans, because the Spirit of God moved in them. As the Lord Jesus said, “Scripture cannot be broken”.
God had His word written and preserved through all ages because it is for us. Since God gave His word for us, He made it sufficient for us, to make us wise unto salvation and completely prepared for every good work to which we are called. This is also why it is clear and can be understood by us. We say “Scripture interprets Scripture”. The Bible explains itself when understood in its own context (exegesis) and we may not read our own ideas into it (eisegesis).
We cannot agree with those who try to add to God’s word with human writings, or any alleged prophecies, claiming that Scripture is not enough. We take issue with those who supplant or question God’s word or disparage its authority or try to reinterpret it based on their own imagination. If we are to know God, we must know Him only in the way that He has revealed Himself.
Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
The Lord Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. No priest or any other person can possibly have that position. Only the Lord Jesus is uniquely qualified because He is, in His one divine Person, both God and man. He is the only Son of God in our human flesh and blood. Because of these two distinct natures, He alone is qualified to be our saviour. The old universal or catholic creeds, rejected by the cults (but received by Reformed churches) teach this about Jesus.
As one of the ancient church fathers put the necessity of our Saviour’s full divinity: we are so sinful, that only God Himself can save us. And regarding the necessity of His full humanity: whatever He did not assume, He could not redeem. The perfect Saviour had to be like us in every way except sin.
As our priest, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to pay for our sins. Because God is perfectly good and just, He must punish all sin and demand perfect conformity to His law. But because He is also merciful, He provided a perfect Saviour who not only bore our punishment, but also gives us His perfect righteousness so that we can be accepted in the presence of our most holy and righteous God.
Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
Since we can only be saved from our deserved punishment by having the righteousness of Christ alone, we cannot be saved by any of our own works. Rather, we receive and know that we have Christ’s righteousness by faith only. By this confident knowledge we are assured that God declares us righteous and has chosen us for salvation, so we say that we are justified by faith alone.
This faith is a spiritual and living bond with Christ, through which we receive all His benefits. From this living faith flows a fountain of thankfulness and good works. We must grow in knowledge for our faith to grow and thereby to grow in holiness and good works.
God has determined to use the means of preaching to call people to faith and to build up their faith. This is why preaching is absolutely central to the life of a Reformed church, unlike other churches which make the sacraments central and leave people ignorant.
Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
Being saved by Christ alone means that we are entirely saved by grace alone, without anything depending on us. This is the primary difference between a Reformed church and other churches. Others want to leave some place for man’s works or free will to determine his own salvation, but then Christ alone would not be the Saviour.
Grace is God’s favour. It should not be confused with good gifts like bread and sunshine which God gives to all in common. Reformed churches confess that God’s grace is not given to all. It is a powerful grace that always saves, and God exercises His sovereign right to bestow or withhold His grace from whomever He pleases. These doctrines of grace are often remembered with the acronym “TULIP”:
Total Depravity: When Adam fell into sin in the beginning, he became a slave to sin, unable to do good. He lost the image of God: righteousness, holiness, and knowledge of God. All his descendants are born with this same totally corrupt nature as guilty slaves of the devil.
Unconditional Election: In eternity, before creation, God determined the end from the beginning and planned all of salvation, including choosing those particular persons who would be saved from sin by His grace, and who would be damned in the way of their own sins. This unconditional choice was not based on anything in us.
Limited Atonement: God sent His beloved Son into the world to redeem us from our slavery. Christ bore the sins of those and those only whom God had eternally chosen to save. In this way His atonement was limited, but His worth as a perfect sacrifice for sin is infinite.
Irresistible Grace: When God sends His Word and Spirit to bring a chosen person to faith and salvation at just the right time, He does so irresistibly. He creates a new holy nature in them where once there was only a fallen corrupt nature. This work of God is such a wonder that it is called a new birth. Man does not cause or have anything to do with his own birth, and all those born again are not only able to believe and repent of their sins, but they actually do, by God’s power in them.
Perseverance of the Saints: The Spirit of God continues to work in God’s chosen people, energizing them to walk in the way of holiness and obedience to God’s commandments. He preserves them to keep them from falling away from the faith by causing them always to persevere, even through dreadful trials and temptations. When we sin, God’s Spirit brings us to repentance again and again until at last we are freed from our old sinful nature when we are in heaven with Him.
This close holy relationship with God is called the covenant of grace. God’s covenant is established and maintained unconditionally in this way by grace alone. God also graciously promises to maintain it from generation to generation. That means God’s gracious election runs through the lines of generations, even though not every child may be elect. God has given us baptism as a sign of this covenant with believers and their children. Unlike Baptists, Reformed churches give this sign to the infants of believers.
Soli Deo Gloria (The Glory of God Alone)
This final sola explains why we must absolutely insist on the above. Only God deserves all the glory. It belongs to Him as His right. All things are from Him, and through Him, and to Him. The glory for salvation also belongs only to God, not to man, therefore it is all of grace and not by man’s will or works. No glory may be given to man, or angels, or Mary, or any other saint, or any other creature.
Reformed churches must be God-centred not man-centred. Our ultimate goal must be the glory of God. Everything else must be subservient to that one goal. This must be the goal that motivates our Christian life and that directs and regulates our worship. The purpose even of our salvation is not primarily for our sakes. It is for the glory of God, in Jesus Christ His Son, in the salvation of His people. Such a wonderful salvation from sin displays the riches of God’s undeserved mercy in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
Reformed churches do not therefore exist to cater for man, but to call us all to deny ourselves and devote ourselves to God alone, just as Christ did when He went to cross. And in the end, because God alone is the fountain of all goodness and blessedness, we can only be satisfied and find meaning in devotion to Him.