Rob Sturdy: What does it mean to be a “Reformed” Christian? (Part I)

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?”  Being “reformed” is currently in vogue.  That is, it’s cool to be a Calvinist.  This growing trend which has been documented by the New York Times, Time Magazine, and U.S.A. Today has produced new interest in Reformed Christianity but it has also produced much confusion about what it means to be Reformed.  So it’s currently a hot topic worth addressing.

Second, to speak of “Reformed” Christians is to speak of the heritage of the Anglican Church, which both me and my friend who asked the question are part of.  Unfortunately, just as people from Idaho will pretend they’re from somewhere else when they move to a big city so have many Anglicans forgotten where they’ve come from.  The Anglican Church was born in the fires (literal) of the Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England adopted a fairly strict Reformed (yes Calvinist!) approach to theology in its first 100 years.  Just as visiting with your quirky friend’s parents is always an “aha” moment, so too knowing where this church has come from should prove a revealing experience.

Through several posts in the coming weeks I hope to address this question in a way that brings clarity to the term.  This might appear to be solely an academic exercise, but it most assuredly is not.  The clergy at Trinity Church consider those doctrines known as “Reformed” to be closest to the heart of the scriptures and they inform every sermon, Bible study, prayer, and counselling session done by us at this church.  Perhaps more importantly, these doctrines have sunk deep into the well of our lives and affected us profoundly.  I hope in the coming weeks as I attempt to engage this question, not only will your heads grow larger with new knowledge but more importantly so would your hearts.  The Reformed Christian, if anything, is a Christian deeply concerned with the heart and its “bigness” for the glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

In this first post I aim no higher than a simple introduction.  So where to begin?  How about the beginning!  The first four words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God…” (Gen 1.1).  Before the larger conversation of creation, humanity, culture, sin, redemption, and restoration can begin we must first pause and acknowledge that the conversation must always begin with God.  Whatever it is that we speak of, the Reformed Christian must always begin with “In the beginning, God.”   Renowned theologian J.I. Packer in his introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ puts it this way:

Calvinism is a theocentric (God-centred) way of thinking about all life under the direction and control of God’s own Word. Calvinism, in other words, is the theology of the Bible viewed from the perspective of the Bible—the God-centred outlook which sees the Creator as the source, and means, and end, of everything that is, both in nature and in grace.

By “all life,” Packer means our work, our friendships, our creativity, our imaginations, our exercise, our marriages, our sex lives, our parentings, our youth and old age, and death itself must be acknowledged as flowing from God.  But it is not enough to recognize that these things merely flow from God.  Rather, it must be acknowledged that they are not only from him but also for him (Col 1.16).

For the Reformed Christian, worship is not something done on a Sunday but rather since all things are “from him and for him” all of life is an act of worship.  During the Reformation this came to be distilled in the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria, which means “glory to God alone.”  This means that all of life is invested with spiritual significance and is an act of worship.  Your job, no matter how worthless it might seem to you nevertheless has meaning because it is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  The intimacy between a man and a woman in marriage might seem like the farthest thing from church, but God alone will have the glory in the marriage bed.  Sex between a husband and wife is an act of worship aiming for the glory of God.  Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper puts it well when he writes:

And because God has fully ordained…all life, therefore the Calvinist demands that all life be consecrated to His service…God is present in all life, with the influence of His omnipresent and almighty power, and no sphere of human life is conceivable in which religion does not maintain its demands that God shall be praised, that God’s ordinances shall be observed, and that every labor shall be permeated with fervent and ceaseless prayer. Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art, and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.(Kuyper, The Stone Lectures)

Thus the Reformed Christian is not satisfied with a spirituality that is confined to the church, the small group, or the fellowship hall.  The Reformed Christian brings God and his glory into every aspect of human life and makes every action an action of worship.  It is a spirituality that seeps into every aspect of the daily grind, unifying seemingly fragmented events and actions under the banner of God’s glory.

And there is one most satisfying aspect where the Reformed Christian must insist that God and God alone have glory.  This aspect is in the aspect of salvation.  I will say more (much more!) on this later, but for now one or two things will do.  Paul writes:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2:8-9)

No one may boast says the Apostle.  But why would we boast?  We would boast, because in some sense we wish to glorify the object of our boasting.  And when my faith is strong, I will often boast in it!  If not to the whole world, perhaps to just myself.  When I am disciplined in scripture reading, in prayers, and in service I boast!  If not to the whole world, at least to my own conscience.  But on occasion, my faith becomes feeble.  On occasion, I do not read, pray.  On occasion the only reason I serve Christ is because I’m expected to by others.  And then where is my boasting!?!?  But more importantly, where is my assurance?

If I trust in my faith, my works, my discipline I will inevitably be disappointed.  Thus it is not merely a doctrinal concern for the Reformed Christian to say “to God alone be the glory!,” but principally it is a pastoral concern.  For you and I to have assurance, to have joy and peace before God we need something or someone more dependable than ourselves.  Thus the Reformed Christian turns to Christ.  The Reformed Christians says of his repentance. “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christians says of his faith, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his prayers, study, and service, “In the beginning, God!”  The Reformed Christian says of his perseverance, “In the beginning, God!”  And as the Reformed Christian dies, his faltering life turning the page on this life and opening up the new chapter of eternal life he will say, “In the beginning, God!”  For every good thing that happens in the life of the Reformed Christian he must say “In the beginning, God!

Thus the Reformed Christian sees the initiation of every good thing, whether it be faith, or fatherhood, hard work, creativity, salvation etc. all have their initiation in God and are ultimately for him.  The Reformed Christian leads a happy, grateful life, under the knowledge that God has thought of him graciously and affectionately.   Because God finishes what he starts, we not only thank him that he began something in us but we wholeheartedly trust in him to finish it.   So I will close with a brief paragraph from Charles Spurgeon:

“ it is not prayer, it is not faith, it is not our doings, it is not our feelings upon which we must rest, but upon Christ and on Christ alone.  We are apt to think that we are not in a right state, that we do not fell enough, instead of remembering that our business is only with Christ.  O soul, of thou couldst fix thy soul on Jesus, and neglect every thing else- if thou couldst but despise good works, and aught else, so far as they relate to salvation, and look wholly, simply on Christ, I feel that Satan would soon give up throwing thee down, he would find that it would not answer his purpose, for thou wouldst fall on Christ, and like the giant who fell upon his mother, the earth, thou wouldst rise up each time stronger than before.”

Spurgeon, “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” Spurgeon’s Sermons Vol II pg 309


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