The year 2009 marked the celebration of the 500th birthday of John Calvin. Every denomination, every church with the name “Reformed” in it took note of this special occasion. Every religious periodical that has any affiliation with the churches of the Reformation honored John Calvin in one way or another. The Outlook, for example, ran an article each month considering various aspects of Calvin’s influence upon the church and society. Throughout the year, our art and graphics designer presented a different cover of the great Reformer in action.
The list of followers of the teachings of John Calvin is quite extensive. Why is it that so many denominations and federations want to have that name “Reformed” in them? What sets them apart from other churches? What is being Reformed all about? If we are at all serious about truly being Reformed, it is necessary for us to understand exactly what that word means.
More Than a Name
When I was much younger, attending a small Christian School, I had to be involved with certain fund raisers for the school. I recall going from one neighbor to another pulling a wagon behind me with little bags of Dutch Babblers, a candy that was made at the Dutch Bakery. From door to door I would go with my opening phrase, “Hi, I’m selling Dutch Babblers as a Fund Raiser for the Christian Reformed School.”
Invariably, two questions would be asked in all seriousness: “Are all the classes in that school taught in Dutch?” and “You look too young to be going to a reform school. What did you do wrong?”
The school I attended stood on what may well have been the highest hill in town. Everybody in town could see this school; everybody knew the school was there. One may want to blame the people in the neighborhood for not knowing what a Reformed Christian School was, but I dare say it was more the fault of all of us who communicated so poorly, if at all, what being Reformed was all about.
A far greater tragedy is not so much that our neighbors have no idea what being Reformed means, but all too often we who call ourselves Reformed see it as nothing more than a name tag. We are unable to identify the major tenets of the Reformed faith or to speak knowledgably about the heritage to which it refers. Unless we know this, we will be unable to tell our own generation and the generation that follows us the great truths of the Holy Scriptures. We will be unable to make any kind of contribution to the world which seems so easily entertained by every wind of doctrine that comes along. We certainly will not have the same impact upon the church as did John Calvin.
On Being Reformed
Briefly and precisely, being a Reformed person is one for whom all of faith and all of life are totally theocentric. That is they are totally God-centered. The Reformed faith is summed up so beautifully in Paul’s doxology: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
Coram deo. That may well be said to be the motto of John Calvin. It means “Before the face of God.” The Bible is usually thought to be a Christ centered book, and most certainly it is. But let us remember the lesson we learn throughout the Christmas season: that Jesus is the Son of God, very God of very God. The Bible could be called not only a christocentric book—that is, Christ-centered—but also a theocentric book—that is a God-centered Book. The very opening lines of this book are “In the beginning, God . . . ,” and very near to the end, in Revelation 22, just before the canon closes, we are told to “Worship God.” We learn from the Bible that it is the Word of God, that man was created by God, man fell into sin by disobeying God, light pierced the darkness of man’s soul when he was given the promise of a Savior from God, that the Christ of God came from God to restore man to God, and that man has been redeemed—not first of all for his own sake—but that he might live forever to bring glory to God. Everything in the Bible, everything in the teaching of John Calvin, everything in Reformed faith, focuses upon the sovereignty of God. He alone is the supreme God!
The angels in their song at Christ’s birth had their theology right. In their hymn on that hillside in Judea they taught us to keep a proper perspective on our theology when they sang “Glory to God in the highest.” That is what it is all about: the dominant theme is glory to God because He is sovereign over all things.
In its origin, implementation, and purpose the redemption of the human race is not man-centered, it is God centered. Paul picked that up in Philippians 2 when he wrote that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of Lords. Paul makes clear that this is not for our sake or for our glory. It is to the glory of God.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, instructs us to be a light to the world so that men will see our good deeds. This is not to bring honor and glory to us. Jesus says we do our good works to the glory of our Father who is in heaven. Anyone who is truly Reformed must put first things first and acknowledge God as the One who sovereignly controls all things at all times. With every ounce of our being we are to bow prostrate before the Living God and exclaim before Him “My God how wonderful Thou art!”
The human race is constantly caught up in a battle against this truth of the sovereignty of God. It may well be called the battle of the isms. It remains the same issue time and time again: man seeking to glorify man. Let me ask you: what governing principle, what point of reference are you going to adopt as the be-all and the end-all for your life? What is it that drives you in life? In what are you placing your hope for life and death?
Communism and socialism claim to have the answer for you. They say, we want a government that will take care of you. The government will supply all of your needs. The government will be your all-in-all and your end-all, taking care of you from birth (if you make it that far) to death (which may come a little sooner).
Traditional Roman Catholicism claims to have the answer for you. It is the church! The church in and of itself is the all-in-all and the end-all. The church will take care of you with all of its rituals and all of its traditions. Karl Barth, although he was wrong on many things, was right when he said the only difference between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics is the little word and. Catholicism teaches faith and works, the Bible and tradition, Jesus Christ and Mary. One of the saddest sights I have ever witnessed on television was the funeral of the last pope. Upon his coffin was a large M, the mark of his co-redemtrix, Mary. The Reformed faith teaches grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and Scripture alone. Those differences run deep.
Arminianism removes two of those distinctions set up by Catholicism: the Bible and tradition and Jesus Christ and Mary; but they keep one: faith and works. They make the claim that the sacrifice Jesus Christ was not enough. We human beings have within ourselves enough good to seek God and in some small way earn our salvation. God cannot save you unless you want to be saved, they claim. And they quickly add that once you have salvation you can lose it. While they claim to believe in the sovereignty of God, they deny the power thereof.
Secularism adopts this world as the measure of all things. It is the world that sets the standard. The toll taken by secularism even among those who call themselves Reformed has been devastating. It has drawn our attention away from that which is noble, that which is pure, that which is honorable, and that which is right. It has led us to indulge ourselves in the violence and voyeurism of this world.
Drawn up in battle array on the side of Satan are all those who march to their drumbeat. We are to be motivated and energized by a deep, deep conviction that the only life worth living is the life in and for our Lord, of whom and through whom and unto whom are all things.
As Paul writes, “To Him be the glory forever.” That is the true genius of true Christianity, and that is what it means to be Reformed.
The Reformed Hallmark Reformed orthodoxy professes and confesses the absolute sovereignty of God. Basically, it is a question of whether or not we are willing to let God be God. In Reformed theology the Bible is accorded its rightful place as the Word of God. If we allow some new hermeneutic to enter into our interpretation of God’s Word, declaring that it is culturally conditioned or not relevant for today, then we are no longer permitting the eternal, everlasting God to be God. If we rip out a page here and there because we do not like its implications toward our way of living, then we are placing ourselves above God.
To quote John Calvin: “The Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard.” The uniqueness of Reformed theology is that it holds as its governing principle the Bible only [sola Scriptura] and the Bible always [tota Scriptura].
Reformed orthodoxy, Reformed doctrine, and Reformed theology are always God-centered. And because that is so, we must reject Arminianism, liberalism, humanism, scientism, and a host of other unscriptural “isms” because they shift the center of theology away from God, toward something or someone else other than God. They want to focus on man and man’s responsibility rather than the sovereignty of God. The hallmark and touchstone of Reformed orthodoxy is that it must always begin and it must always end with God at the center.
Because of that, the church must ever be diligent in her work. She must remain faithful. God most certainly has been faithful to His church! While we were still dead in our trespasses and sins, God in His mercy sent His Son to become our substitute. His Son took upon Himself our sin, facing the punishment that we deserved—death itself. Jesus, through His sacrifice, removed the sting of death from us.
As we close the year 2009, we must acknowledge that there are a few faces missing from our company. Several times we have been called to stand by the graveside to bury a loved one. One day it will be your turn, as well. Never think that somehow you will be exempt from facing that final enemy. Your turn will come. Where have you placed your hope? In the government? In Mary? In tradition? In your own works? What is your only comfort in life and death?
The almighty, sovereign God has supplied us with the way of salvation: His only Son. Indeed, God has been faithful. Look to Him, and to Him alone, for salvation. Rest on the finished work of the very one who came to save His people from their sins, Jesus Christ.
Live coram deo!
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the pastor of the Covenant United Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
He is also the editor of The Outlook.