What Is Reformed Theology?
Why should you even care?
First of all, before we crack open any of a thousand theology books, let us look into our history books and briefly answer the questions: what was the Reformation?
What is Reformed Theology?
To answer this question in its totality would require a good-sized tome. To try and pour it into this brief article would be like trying to empty the river Rhine into a coffee cup. So we will keep it in summary form and look up briefly at the snowcapped mountains.
What was the Reformation?
The Reformation was a spiritual awakening and religious reform within Western Christianity, which shook every nation in Europe during the 1500s. It was a protest against the theology and abuses within the Roman Catholic Church, which held widespread control over people’s lives from the cradle to the grave.
The earliest reformers were men like Peter Waldo and the Waldensians of twelfth-century France, whose history was written in the blood of their martyrs. The Church of Rome birthed the Inquisition in this womb of time. Other early reformers were John Wycliffe of England and John Huss of Bohemia (14th century), who wanted to reform the church but were met with violent resistance by its hierarchy. The Inquisition dug up Wycliffe’s bones and scattered his ashes. Not keeping their promise to Huss of “safe passage,” they burned him alive.
Approximately 125 years later, in 1517, things were coming to a boil. Along came Martin Luther of Germany, a Roman Catholic monk, and theologian. He wanted to do more than clean up the corruption within the Church, and he went a whole lot deeper. He went to the theological root of the problem, corruption of doctrine. On October 31, 1517, he nailed up on the Wittenberg castle church door (used as a public bulletin board) Ninety-five Thesis that challenged Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Like a spark that hits dry leaves, it spread through Germany, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Britain. Its three primary torchbearers were Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in France.
The Founder and chief of what we now call Reformation Theology was the French Pastor-Theologian-Evangelical-Pro-test-ant John Calvin. He founded the first Reformed Church in 1571.
In its earliest stages, all of the Reformation churches that spun out of Calvinism used the name Reformed. Later on, many would use titles such as Evangelical, Congregational Calvinistic, Presbyterian, etc. Their purpose was to separate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church, which as Pro-test-ants, they saw had lost the simple gospel message of salvation by grace alone.
In the Middle and Dark Ages (500-1500 AD): (Some don’t like the word Dark, but theologically it was very much so: thick, dark, and deep). Christianity had become a religion of bowing and bending, relics and ritualism, feast days and formalities, a tangled web of dos and don’ts. The Medieval church shrouded the simple gospel in the fog of sacramentalism and ceremonialism.
The Church no longer heard the cry of the simple man and their hunger for the simple gospel. Like the cry of the unlearned gentiles who traveled to Jerusalem in John 12:21 to talk to Jesus. They said to Andrew and Philip, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” But they never did see Jesus. They left feeling like the Ethiopian who pilgrimaged over 1500 miles to Jerusalem to meet with God in the Temple. But after seven days, after all the smoke and incense cleared, he walked away spiritually empty. He did not find the personal relationship with God for which he was so earnestly searching. Philip gave him the simple gospel (Acts 8:37). Multitudes in the spiritual Dark Ages felt like these pilgrims, lost in a dark night, lost in a thick fog they feared would never disappear. Thus John Calvin, thus the Reformation Church, thus the Reformed Church, thus Reformed Theology.
The Five Pillars & The Five Solas
Before we drill down into the Five Solas of Reformed Theology, let’s be clear; Reformed Theology is not a new belief system: it does not trace its doctrine back to John Calvin, but like John Calvin, it traces its theology back to the Apostles back to Scripture. While their history as a denomination is slightly over five hundred years old, their doctrine is as old as Genesis chapter one and John chapter one.
Reformed Theology can be categorized into two main branches. The Five Pillars and The Five Solas. The Five Pillars of Reformation Theology are summarized in the acronym T-U-L-I-P. They are generalizations and by no means is Reformed Theology limited within the borders of these five pillars. The Synod of Dort crafted them in 1618-1619. The Five Pillars are: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistibility of grace, and final Perseverance of the saints
In another article, we will look through both our microscope and telescope and behold wonderful truths found in this acronym entitled T-U-L-I-P
However, In this article, we briefly look at the Five Solas (Sola simply means “Alone.”) that earmark Reformed Theology and the world-changing doctrine of the Reformation fathers.
Sola Scriptura meaning “Scripture Alone.” This was the rallying cry of a Gideon (Judges 6:34), the voice of a John the Baptist in the wilderness (Matthew 3:1-12) that fell upon many who had ears to hear (Mark 4:9) throughout 16th century Europe. The Reformers could find no biblical support for praying to saints, transubstantiation, Papal infallibility, or indulgences. They could not see what was not there; the Scriptures alone, not Scripture plus tradition, are the single, authoritative Word of God. They are the divine yardstick by which they measure all teachings and practices. We do not judge the scriptures; they judge us.
Roman Catholicism likes to make the argument: Show me in the Bible where it says Sola Scriptura or “Scripture Alone. But this is as shallow as the Muslim argument, “Show me in the Bible where Jesus said, “I Am God.” There is no such verse, but the Biblical authors implied it repeatedly (Acts 17:11; I Timothy 4:6; II Timothy 3:16).
Sola Gratia, meaning “Salvation by Grace Alone.” Christ saved no one from the penalty of their sins because their good works outnumber their evil works. Salvation is totally by his grace alone. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved favor of Christ upon the unworthy sinner. Salvation is by grace alone, not by a mixture of faith plus good works. Religious leaders such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus found salvation in the same manner as did the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus. He was as hopeless as a thief in a death cart on its way to the guillotine. The highest court had declared him deserving of death. He had no good works to brag about. Hear the cry of a repentant sinner, “Lord, remember me.” And now hear Christ’s good news of grace;” Today, you shall be with me in paradise.” They, like all sinners, were redeemed by grace alone. This means there will be no boasters in heaven. We all get there the same way, by Grace Alone.
Sola Fide, meaning “Salvation by Faith Alone.” By placing their faith in Christ alone, Christ’s perfect righteousness is immediately imputed to the most unrighteous sinner making them as righteous as Christ Himself. Can you think of a thought more beautiful than that? By faith alone, the worst sinner will stand before God as righteous as God’s own Son. By faith in Christ alone, we meet God’s perfect standard. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new “(I Corinthians 5:17). “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Solus Christus, meaning “In Christ Alone.” Salvation from sin is Jesus Christ plus nothing. He did not die for perfect people. He died to make the most filthy, dark-dyed sinner perfect. He is the perfect sacrifice, and because his sacrifice was perfect, we cannot make it more perfect. When God the Father looks upon the vilest repentant sinner, He sees them through the lens of his Son. How perfect is that? Who can improve upon that? “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). Jesus Christ plus nothing was the salvation doctrine of the Reformers. No one else and nothing else can save us from the penalty of our sins. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is sufficient for our justification and reconciliation with God the Father. The gospel is preached when Solus Christus, salvation through Christ alone is being preached.” He alone ends the dark night of the soul. As Noah was secure in the ark, we are eternally secure in Jesus Christ.
Sola Deo Gloria
Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “For the Glory of God Alone.” God created all things for His own glory. Revelation 4:11, “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.” His glory shall be our song throughout eternity (Revelation 19:6-8).
The Westminster Confession is a treasure chest overflowing with many more doctrines of theology than these five solas: but they are the heartbeat of Reformed Theology. These are the guiding lights along the runway of life that will suffice until we touch down on heaven’s landing pad. These five solas are five trumpet blasts sounding forth to keep the church from falling asleep. They are not sixteenth-century doctrines or twenty-second-century doctrines but eternal truths forever settled in heaven. As Jesus said in Matthew 24:35, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” His Word is the foundation of all foundations. Here we stand, here we rest, where we plant our flag. We can do no other.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Dr. Robert Bryant