What Does it Mean to be Reformed?
By Ron Citlau, Lead Pastor
Calvary is a church that is part of the reformed tradition. Though “reformed tradition” in Protestantism can mean a variety of things, it is a general identifier for a tradition that was born out of the ideas and writings of the great reformers, including Martin Luther and John Calvin. From there, other giants of the faith helped form this tradition: Jonathan Edwards, John Owens, Abraham Kuiper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Herman Bavinck to name a few.
There are many different aspects of the reformed tradition and it fits no easy categorization. Generally speaking, the reformed tradition is marked by a conviction in the authority of the Bible and belief in the unity of the scriptures—Old and New Testament—concerning the story of redemption, belief in the “priesthood of believers” (each believer has access to God without an intermediary), a belief in the sufficiency of Jesus in salvation and deep hope in the sovereignty of God. If these make up the boundaries of a map that define the reformed tradition, then what follows are the gems we have found as a church on that map. These gems have helped form who we are and help us know what it means to be a Christian community. These five gems of the reformed tradition are:
1) An utter allegiance, adoration and confidence in the person, work and activity of Jesus.
2) A commitment to and obedience of the Bible as the final authority in all issues pertaining to life and godliness.
3) A commitment to the Three Forms of Unity and the Creeds.
4) A belief, yearning and seeking for Communion with God.
5) A commitment to discipleship.
These five gems of the reformed faith are not just tenets of belief at Calvary, they make up the core of our identity. They reveal the essence of who we are.
At Calvary, we place our full confidence in Jesus for salvation, sanctification[i] and heaven. In the reformed tradition this is known as Solis Christus[ii]. He is life (John 14:6)! Unlike other Christian traditions which place partial responsibility on individual choice and holiness in salvation, we believe that Jesus is the one who saves (Acts 4:12). Embracing Jesus as Lord saves the human soul (Romans 10:9). Nothing can be added to what he has done (Ephesians 2:8-10). Those he saves, cannot lose the gift of salvation (Romans 8:39-39, Romans 10:13). Jesus is also Lord of our sanctification; our maturity is his project; if it happens it will be because he has empowered it (Philippians 1:6). Finally, our confidence in him gives us assurance of heaven (John 14:1-3). At Calvary we make much of Jesus in everything we do. How we preach, how we pray, how we worship, how we plan, how we counsel, and how we hope is centered on the man from Nazareth. If we are known for nothing else, we want to be known as a church that follows and adores Jesus.
Second, we commit to and obey the Bible as the final authority in all issues pertaining to life and godliness. The reformers called this, Sola Scriptura. In a cultural moment when truth is proclaimed as relative and some of the smartest people in the world don’t even believe in a physical reality let alone a spiritual one, the scriptures give us light to see what is truly real (Psalm 119:105). By the scriptures, we gain access to all that matters (Psalm 19:7-11). By them, we know how to live a good life (2 Timothy 3:16). In this embrace of Sola Scriptura, the Bible isn’t just a book to read and like but the very foundation we are commanded to build our lives upon (James 1:23-25). We desire not to be led by personal bias, polished arguments, mere opinions or the latest intellectual trends, but to be a “Berean community” that discerns everything by the light of scripture (Acts 17:11).
Third, we are a community that adheres to the Three Forms of Unity and the three ancient Creeds of the Reformed Church. These are historic, Christian documents born out of ancient Christianity and the Reformation. They lay out fundamental Christian doctrine found in the Bible. The Three Forms of Unity are the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The three Creeds we adhere to are: The Apostle’s Creed, The Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. We are part of a denomination, the Reformed Church in America, whose foundational belief statements are made up of these biblically-based documents. By no means do these documents undermine our belief in the preeminence of scripture as the final authority. Instead, these are “commentaries” from some of the wisest followers of Jesus that help us see the story of redemption that echoes throughout the Bible. They are aids of faith. Though all are important in this regard, the Heidelberg Catechism is the jewel among them. It’s beautiful prose, devotional-like framework, and generous spirit is an essential companion for any believer that desires hope, joy and help on the journey of discipleship. Calvary finds resources of gospel hope in our creeds and confessions. Their greatest help, perhaps, are their proclamation that God is good, loving and all-powerful. It is this biblical vision of God that we seek to proclaim in all that we do.
Fourth, we are a community that believes in and seeks Communion with God. This reformed idea brought clearly forth through the Puritans of the 17t and 18th century is another aspect of the reformed tradition that we cherish at Calvary. Communion with God is most beautifully described in the classic Christian book by John Owens, Communion with the Triune God. According to Kelly Kapic, editor of the latest edition of Owen’s book, communion with God is, “…fellowship and communication — e.g., shared affections, response, delight, and satisfaction. In other words, when Owen speaks of our communion with God, he really means active communion, and not merely a state of passivity. ‘Communion consists in giving and receiving’”. Communion with God is a profoundly biblical idea; it is found throughout the scriptures (Genesis 5:24, Jeremiah 31:3, Isaiah 54:1-17, Zephaniah 3:17, John 15:5, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Galatians 2:20, Revelation 19:7-9). From the biblical witness, Christians like John Owens, and the testimony of countless Christians through the ages, we are convinced that we can “know”[iii] God and this is eternal life (John 17:3)[iv].
Calvary is a church of the Word and a church of the Spirit. We believe in the authority of scriptures to teach us about the nature and character of God. And we our a Spirit-filled people who are in communion with God. This is our great hope and yearning. We are a people who seek the Lord! We dream of a church filled with men and women from all different walks of life with one common denominator: we know God in our actual lives. We believe that such intimacy with the triune God is the foundation and final aim of the Christian life (John 17:3).
Finally, we strongly adhere to the reformed idea that salvation is not only about where we go when we die. Salvation is the means by which we are thrusted into the journey of becoming the men and women God desires us to be[v]. This truth can be found in such reformed classics as the third book of Calvin’s Institutes of Religion and Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is also the essence of Christianity for the believer as presented in the Bible (Matthew 28:16-20, John 8:31-32, 2 Timothy 2:20-21, Luke 6:40, Luke 9:23). This is what it means to be born-again, made alive in Christ (John 3:3, Romans 6:11). We are saved—made alive—to be Jesus’ disciples. Anything that is alive has certain attributes and as long as it receives the attention and nutrients it needs and nothing harmful intervenes, the life will naturally grow into a mature life—a seed becomes a bloomed plant, an egg becomes a hen, etc… This is the way God has designed life. It is also the biblical vision for the Christian life. A man or woman who is born from above (John 3:3) begins as an “infant in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). This new life will grow and mature through the process of discipleship until a Christian lives his or her life as Christ lived his (1 John 2:6). This is the natural development of the Christian. Such growth into maturity is not for the super-Christian. It ought to be as natural as a flower seed growing into a fully bloomed plant. Christ’s life in the believer should be growing in three essential areas: 1) communion with the triune God (John 17:20-23); 2) growing in the character of Christ (Romans 12, Colossians 3, Galatians 5); 3) a centering of the whole life around the mission of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). To be a born-again Christian is to be a person who is learning from Jesus how to live the life he lived. There is no other “life” for a Christian. As a community, we are deeply committed to see disciples become more like Jesus. If you are with us for any length of time, you will hear us either corporately or privately invite all who will listen into a discipleship relationship with Jesus. And if a person is already a disciple, we want to help in any way we can for his disciples to continue to grow in the life of Christ. We don’t want mere converts who look untouched by eternity. Nor is perfection our goal. Instead, we dream to be a church where it is obvious that Christians—little Christs—are growing and maturing among us.
We are a reformed community. Though “reformed” has a history and a tradition that some might find stuffy or unhelpful, we find great joy in our reformed roots. The beauty and sufficiency of Jesus, the authority of scriptures, the Three Forms of Unity and Creeds of the Reformed Church, Communion with God and the reality that salvation and maturing are one and the same thing form a vision of life that gives us a firm ground of glorious hope. As we grow and mature in these aspects of our Christian faith, it is our hope that Calvary would sing from the depths of experience and knowledge the great reformed anthem—Soli Deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory in all things.
[i] “the progressive conformity of the heart and life to the will of God (Eph. 5:26, 27; 1 Thess. 5:23)”, Westminster Bible Dictionary
[ii] The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.
The Five Solas are:
Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/the-five-solas-of-the-protestant-reformation.html
[iii] The Greek word to know, ginōskōsi, includes both an intellectual and relational aspect. To ginōskōsi someone is to have information and to have relational intimacy with that person. When we say that we can know God, we mean that we can have deep, communal intimacy and can also know about his nature through Jesus Christ.
[iv] For some helpful introductions to the idea of “knowing God”, these books are delightful primers: Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians, by James Lawson; The Divine Conspracy, by Dallas Willard; The Divine Cordail, by Thomas Watson; Communion with the Triune God, by John Owens.
[v] Historically, this journey has been called sanctification.
[VB1]I’m OK with not mentioning The Confession of Belhar.