A couple of days ago someone in Twitter dropped me a link to a Southern California Reformed radio program. I am not sure why I followed the link, but I did. I encountered a video that contained the audio portion of a radio program where in some reformed pastors were responding to comments made by Dr. John MacArthur. As I looked through the comments box on the video I found a number of very interesting statements. This prompted me to ask the basic question of the pastors as to whether they felt that Baptists are their brothers in Christ and co-laborers in the gospel. The responses I have received grieve my heart, but they likewise give an opportunity for me to address the issue of what “Reformed” really means. I know that my views on this are not shared by many. In fact, there seem to still be many in the “Reformed” camp who would support the actions of their forefathers who, for many generations, used the sword, the prison, and the practice of the “third baptism” (death by drowning) to persecute Baptists. Likewise, this is not the first time I have encountered men who refuse to move past the sixteenth century and recognize that the term “Anabaptist” had a specific historical meaning that is utterly irrelevant in addressing someone such as myself who holds strongly to covenantal theology.
I think I have a very strong case when I argue that first and foremost someone who is “Reformed” is someone who believes that God has spoken with clarity and certainty in the Christian Scriptures. This may not have been the primary focus of everything the Reformers originally said, but that is because they lived in a day when the full inspiration and authority of the Bible was pretty much a given. We do not live in such a day today. We live in a day of rampant unbelief in the clarity, perspicuity, and authority of divine revelation in Scripture. This is true even amongst many who call themselves Christians.
Just today on the Dividing Line I commented on Roger Olson’s new book, Against Calvinism. In the book, Olson makes it very clear that even if he were to be convinced that God has revealed that He does exist, and act, as Calvinists say He does, he would not worship such a God. Such an attitude is the very essence of humanistic religion. And such an attitude is the antithesis of the heart and mind of a Reformed man. To someone who is Reformed, God’s revelation is absolutely normative and authoritative. We do not rely upon ourselves to determine the nature and attributes of the God we worship. We look to God to reveal Himself in His word, and His Spirit drives us to our knees in the presence of His truth. I am convinced that part of the work of regeneration in the heart of God’s elect involves the intimate, lifelong love for, and submission to, the holy Scriptures. I further believe that true Reformed theology becomes a mockery and a travesty when it is decoupled from the highest view of Scripture. There is no reason to believe in the divine truths of the Christian faith if the Bible is not truly God’s word. Those denominations and churches that once made a Reformed confession that have abandoned a full belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture have as a result turned into the very negation of the faith they once proclaimed.
So what does it mean to be Reformed? Yes, there are certain non-negotiable aspects of any meaningful definition of “the Reformed faith.” But before we get to those, I think it is vitally important that we recognize the spiritual aspect of this question. There is an attitude of the heart, and attitude of the mind, that is central to being Reformed. A person who is Reformed has seen the glory of God in His holiness, His power, His transcendence, and the freedom of His grace. A Reformed person has not merely been taught these truths, he or she has experienced these truths. A Reformed person has been changed by recognizing God for who He is. The inevitable result of that is that we see ourselves as we truly are, creatures of the sovereign and omnipotent Creator. It is hard to express in words how humbling it is to recognize that we are clay in the Potter’s hands. I can speak from experience that the contemplation of the holy and all-powerful Yahweh as my maker and creator and sustainer utterly and completely changed my life. I could not possibly continue to hold to a man centered theology once I had come to understand the transcendent holiness of my creator, His utter detestation of sin, and the depth of my nature as sinner. No matter what it has cost me to be an open and avowed Calvinist in a culture where man centeredness even in matters of religion leads to popularity, I could not do otherwise. You are changed, forever, when you see God as He truly is.
This heart centered, Spirit-born conviction must be present for a person to be truly Reformed. This cannot be passed down from one generation to another by external means. It is the sovereign and free work of the Spirit of God within His elect people. As such, it cannot be forced upon someone by external means. True Christianity is not genetic. It is spiritual, it is all of grace, it is grounded in God’s freedom. When you combine reformed theology with a heart that has never truly been humbled by this kind of vision of the Almighty God, and a true and deep felt conviction of one’s own unworthiness of the grace of God, and even more, how fully we deserve the wrath and detestation of that holy God, you end up with an ugly mutation, something that is as unnatural as the claim of faith that has no works to prove its existence.
continued in Part II