10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Reformed Theology

Is Calvinism the cold, rigid approach to Christianity it’s made out to be?

Reformed theology — or Calvinism — gets a bad rap. Calvinists are often seen as condescending, believing themselves to be part of God’s “elect.” It’s a cold, rigid theology that leaves no room for grace, oppresses women, and eliminates the need for evangelism. Or is it?

A number of people (see here, here, and here) have written of a Calvinist revival happening in Christianity. The theology’s main proponents are some of the most prolific, publicized (and polarizing) voices: Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll, to name a few. Though Calvinism and its counterpart, Arminianism, are roughly equal in numbers of adherents, Calvinists get most of the press — much of it misleading.

So, here are 10 things to know about Reformed theology:

1. Reformed and Calvinist are generally used interchangeably.

First, Calvinism is a system of theology, not a denomination. And it was one stream of theology to come out of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Lutheran, Anabaptist, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches all sprung up as a result of the teachings of the Reformers, who, in addition to Calvin, included theologians like Martin Luther, John Knox, and Ulrich Zwingli.

Broadly speaking, Calvinism encompasses the whole of Reformed theology and its doctrinal distinctives. Many more churches hold to Reformed teaching than just the Reformed Church of America and the Christian Reformed Church. For example, some of today’s most outspoken Calvinists are Southern Baptist.

2. Reformed theology is more than the five points (or TULIP).

Calvinism is often distilled into the moniker TULIP — Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. But, this systematic packaging is reductive and doesn’t nearly represent all that Reformed Christians believe. It is not creed, nor was it chosen by Calvinists to summarize their beliefs. In fact, the teachings that later become TULIP were a response to the Arminian Five Articles of Remonstrance.

While the five points summarize well the Calvinist principles of faith, they don’t say much about how that faith is expressed. They don’t express the high role of the sacraments — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — as a means of grace, a physical portrayal of the promise of salvation that is the gospel. And while the five points are true, they are not the truth. Speaking on being a Calvinist, John Piper says, “We begin as Bible-believing Christians who want to put the Bible above all systems of thought.”

(Also of notable importance to Reformed theology are the five solas — scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, God’s glory alone. See the Westminster Confession of Faith for a more comprehensive exploration of the doctrines to which Calvinists ascribe.)

3. There is a broad spectrum of beliefs within Reformed Christianity.

Calvinism is a 500-year-old theology that people may think they’ve defined with an easy-to-remember acronym, but it’s still an ongoing point of contention. Not all Calvinists are five-pointers — some are seven-point Calvinists, as John Piper half-jokingly calls himself, and still others don’t necessarily “wave the Calvinist flag,” but hold to a Reformed understanding of the Bible.

There are New Calvinists (also called the Young, Restless, Reformed) and “Old” Calvinists, the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America — an eclectic mix of doctrines falls under the Reformed superstructure. There are Reformed Christians who believe human free will and divine predestination are binary, and those who find a way to reconcile the two. Some Calvinists hold to the idea of reprobation (or double predestination), and many more don’t. As divisions exist within Christianity, so too among its Reformed.

4. Reformed theology is humbling, but it’s also about ultimate joy.

God’s glory and our joy are inextricably linked. So, while the Reformed view of God’s ultimate sovereignty humbles the believer, who has nothing to do with his own salvation, it does not diminish his worth. Christians are carrying out an ultimate purpose that results in God’s glory and our satisfaction.

Reformed theology reorients the believer to a God-centered view of reality. As Michael Horton writes, “God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around.” The end purpose of human life is to glorify God. The reason this isn’t bleak for us is that God is glorified by our enjoying him eternally. In Desiring God John Piper explains it this way, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Enjoying. Satisfied. These are good things for us.

5. The Reformed view of women is not oppressive.

To a lot of people (especially outside of the church), the Reformed view of specific gender roles seems retrograde. Yet, a number of modern, fully educated women accept as biblical the Reformed church’s view of complementarianism — essentially that man was made to reflect Christ’s sacrificial relationship to the church and woman to reflect the church’s submissive relationship to God.

What complementarianism really means has been twisted, not least by people inside the church. In no way does “submissive” mean a woman must be a silent, covered-up, stay-at-home housewife who shouldn’t be involved in ministry and whose only purpose in life is to marry, have children, and blindly follow her husband. Rather, Mary Kassian writes, “Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus. We do not get to dictate what manhood and womanhood are all about. Our Creator does.”

(For more, read Thabiti Anyabwile on how complementarianism is made clearer by the Great Commission.)

6. The Reformed view of the Bible as “inerrant” doesn’t mean “literal.”

While Reformed theology teaches that the Bible is the inerrant word of God — that it is true, accurate — that doesn’t necessitate a literal reading of every word in the Bible. Though inerrancy and literalism are often joined together, they need not be to still affirm the authority of the scripture. Says Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul, “The focus on the veracity of what Scripture actually affirms also allows us to take into account the use of poetic imagery.”

In the same vein, if Jesus spoke in parables, why should we not see in parts of scripture the God-intended use of metaphors, hyperboles, symbols, or any other literary device? Their use doesn’t make the scriptures any less accurate, any less inerrant.

7. Reformed theology is a celebration of God’s grace.

More than anything, Reformed theology exalts God’s grace by hinging entirely upon it. Total depravity means there is no way apart from God that any human would seek God on his own. We are completely “dead” in sin. Yet, the beauty of Reformed theology is that God came after us anyway and makes us alive through the gift of faith by his grace — a grace powerful enough to overcome our resistance to it. Here’s an analogy I heard recently that describes the Reformed view of grace:

You’re dead at the bottom of the sea, lungs full of water. God jumps in, pulls you up, and makes you alive again — and he does so because of his great love. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s grace to rescue us.

8. Reformed theology manifests in a variety of cultural expressions.

The stereotype of Reformed Christianity is that it’s full of old, stodgy white guys. While that certainly exists within Reformed Christianity, it’s not exclusively so. I go to a highly multicultural (largely Hispanic) nondenominational church that holds to Reformed theology and has members who bring tambourines that they shake from their seats during worship, others who clap and mumble “thank you, Jesus” throughout the sermon, and a pastor who performs communion and reads a benediction at the end of each service. All of that is to say, Calvinism is attracting many more than the “typical” players — further shown by its representation within Christian hip hop.

9. The Reformed idea of “election” doesn’t negate evangelism.

It’s commonly assumed that if God has chosen from eternity who is saved, evangelism is rendered pointless. But Calvinists believe that God chooses to work through his people and through their preaching of his word to save those he has chosen. (See Romans 10.) God’s sovereignty over salvation, says Reformed theology, fuels the desire to evangelize. The pressure is off the Christian to persuade a person to believe — he trusts God to save even those who seem to him the furthest from faith. Because God chose to save independent of character or behavior, the Reformed preach to all, as no one is beyond the hope of salvation that was ordained from eternity.

Michael Horton, author of For Calvinism, says that election is what makes evangelism worthwhile. Without it, none would choose Christ, none would choose salvation — “we would all be left in our sins and there would be no point to evangelism.”

10. Reformed theology ≠ Jesus.

Often, Calvinists are accused of being cocky, arrogant, abrasive — usually toward those who don’t share the Reformed theology they believe to be exclusively accurate. The danger comes in elevating the theology, the doctrine above Christ. In the end, Reformed theology doesn’t perfectly answer or satisfy every question we have, for God is bigger and beyond any system or framework that we contrive.

I like the way pastor Art Azurdia reorients us to Jesus by saying, “The evidence of God’s mercy in your life isn’t determined by how much theology you know, by how many books you read, but by your active goodness to people in misery and in need.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Corrie Mitchell
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  • Martin Hughes

    Are there simply two sharply defined and separated classes of humanity, saints and sinners, such that nothing bad is true of the first and nothing good – no redeeming features and all that – of the second?

    • rightlydark

      No sir. Rather, those two classes are sinners and saved sinners. Neither have any redeeming qualities. One has a Redeemer and that Redeemer makes saints (simul justus et peccator). I’ve found that rather than arrogant, those who follow the logical end of Reformed theology have the humblest view of man and the holiest view of God.

      • Dee Parsons

        “The logical end of Reformed theology have the humblest view of man and the holiest view of God.” It is this sort of statement that causes those of us who are not Calvinists to doubt the humility of those who follow its precepts.

        • rightlydark

          Where was the arrogance in that statement? Forgive me if it came off the way. But if there is already a bias of those who adhere to a reformed theology, nothing I would have said could help it. And I’m not a Calvinist. I’m a Christian. Calvin is dead.

          • Dee Parsons

            You said that following Reformed theology logically leads to the humblest view of men and the holiest view of God. Following the logic of your argument, those who are not Reformed have a less holy view of God and a less humble view of mankind. If you had said that the logical outcome of Reformed theology is a humble view of man and a holy view of God it would have not led me to that conclusion and would have kept the conversation on an equal footing.

          • rightlydark

            Well, I have to admit that if you logically follow a more Arminian view correctly, one can only come to the conclusion of man’s ability to thwart the sovereign will of God. I.e.: I can choose to be saved or not be saved. If God draws me, but I say “no,” I’m sovereign over God. I mean, I don’t know what fancy footwork some Arminians use to dismiss this conclusion, but from everything I’ve read, which has been vast, this is the logical conclusion.

            That’s what I meant by reformed theology having a high view of God and a low view of man. From the comparison of the two and actually thinking them through, one is more humble than the other. Is my conclusion wrong?

            But no doubt, there are arrogant “Calvinists” and humble “Arminians.” I should not have made such a blanket statement.

          • Dee Parsons

            As one who is not Reformed, I can assure you that I believe in God’s sovereignty and I strive, albeit with difficulty and chronic failure, to be humble. Once again, by your use of terms such as “fancy footwork” to diminish Arminian scholarship and your emphasis on your “vast” reading, you have demonstrated my chief concern on the problems of interaction between the two camps. I wish you Godspeed.

          • Larry

            Amazing how you accuse rightlydark of not being humble by his statement about humility. Then when he tries to explain, you take his explanation and dismiss his argument again accusing him of having a holier then though attitude. I think your statements alone prove his first argument. God bless Dee.

          • rightlydark

            I’m giving context of my knowledge. Is that arrogance? I wish more people would be forthright with their research habits. If it hadn’t been vast, and I’m making such assertions, I’d just be a liar. Which do you prefer?

          • guest

            🙁 Christians are so mean, just cause someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean you need to be rude. Seriously we are probably all wrong! Our religious understanding isn’t what saves us, like the pharisees believed, it is through God’s love given us, first to the jew then to the gentiles, through Christ. We suck and our knowledge is all incomplete. We won’t know the truth until that glorious day.

            “Faith, hope and love” “the greatest of these is love” so lets love through our disagreements and admit Paul is hard for our minds to understand.

  • janeway

    Does this mean that Calvinist teach that certain people have been chosen by God to be saved by the grace of Christ providing they accept it? Are all others doomed to eternal hell? No critic, just curious.

    • Brian

      Yes

    • rightlydark

      The Calvinist also teaches that those chosen WILL accept and the rest are doomed to an eternity all men deserve but some have been mercifully saved from.

  • Hacky Duck

    “You’re dead at the bottom of the sea, lungs full of water. God jumps in, pulls you up, and makes you alive again — and he does so because of his great love.”

    Except when he doesn’t pull you up. Hasn’t your great loving God predestined billions to drown?

    • Josh

      The mystery isn’t “Why didn’t he save these many people who perish?”
      The mystery is “Why would he bother saving any at all?”

      • Hacky Duck

        No, the mystery is why a loving God would create people, not save them, and then torture them for all eternity.

        • Josh

          In your chain of reasoning, you left out that man sinned in Adam (and continue to sin) earning their fate.

          • ajginn

            Adam never existed. Your theology falls apart because of his non-existence.

          • guest

            Actually everyone, even science, believes there was an “Adam.” There had to be a first human at some point. Think about it dude 😉

          • ajginn

            I don’t think you understand evolution. There was no “first” human, just one generation after another that gradually descended from an apelike ancestor.

          • guest

            Actually I don’t think you understand evolution. We didn’t come from an apelike ancestor, but from a common ancestor that the apes also came from, not necessarily apelike. See oversimplified picture. Also there had to be a first time words were spoken or written in some form and tools were made this would be the first Adam.

          • guest

            Actually I don’t think you understand evolution. We didn’t come from an apelike ancestor, but from a common ancestor that the apes also came from, not necessarily apelike. See oversimplified picture. Also there had to be a first time words were spoken or written in some form and tools were made this would be the first Adam.

          • ajginn

            Thanks but I understand evolution just fine. The last common ancestor between humans and chimps lived about seven million years ago. It was certainly apelike as the common ancestor of chimps and gorillas is even older. and they are both apes.

            I have no idea what you’re calling Adam. Even some invertebrates use tools (the octopus for example). Tool use is not unique to humans. Language might be but even that’s not certain. You can call Adam whatever you want, but I assure you that the author of this blog is referring to the speciallt-created first man as detailed in Genesis 2. That guy never existed.

          • guest

            The author of this blog didn’t even mention Adam so this entire conversation is irrelevant. Since the author doesn’t mention his opinion on the origin of Adam, I don’t think it is a safe assumption to say what he believes.

          • ajginn

            And if God willed Adam to sin, why does he punish humanity for becoming exactly what he created them to be? That’s a psychopathic deity you’re touting.

          • guest

            James 1:13
            Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.

            I think you are using will as “caused to happen” but it means God knows everything that will and has happen.

            This might be why it seems this way I hope this helped! If not feel free to ask 🙂 not trying to be rude just clarify

          • ajginn

            Isaiah 45:7

            “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.”

            Your God is all sovereign which means he ordains all and causes all to come to pass, including sin. I think you might want to think about your position a bit more instead ot regurgitating verses that support what you want to believe.

          • JP

            He commanded Israel to slaughter many people. Unless one considers these passages to be allegorical, one must recognize that God created some people to be destroyed. Does it seem harsh to me? Terribly. But he is the almighty, all-knowing God, we have no right to question why he does what he does

          • ajginn

            That sounds like a “cult of personality” type of belief. “Great Leader killed all those children. It seems harsh to me but he is the Great Leader who shouldn’t be questioned.”

            If your sense of morality is so at odds with that ofthe God you worship. maybe it’s time to pause and reflect.

    • Don Bosco

      Man chooses to sin out of his own fee will, God did not pre-destine anyone to sin. He only Pre-destined to save the Elect out of all the one who choose to drown. The ones who are being allowed to drown are drowning only because they choose to drown, so they are still only getting what they deserve. When God chooses to make a few alive again, he takes away from them what they deserve (which is his wrath) and through his grace gives them what they do not deserve (Salvation through his grace by his love).

  • Ivan Ramos

    “Though Calvinism and its counterpart, Arminianism, are roughly equal in numbers of adherents..???” Calvinists are a minority. In a metro area filled with hundreds of churches literally, I am looked down on because I am Calvinist. I’ve been to different cities and spoken with multitudes of Christians throughout North America and I’m perceived as a red-headed step child. Most Christians I run across are open theist where God is reacting to man’s will.

  • philip lazar

    Martin Luther, John Knox, and Ulrich Zwingli are 5 point Calvinist? If no, Stop arguing to prove reformed theology or Calvinism. If Yes, than why Lutheranism or Arminianism are not biblical? Both System is flawed system. Don’t try to prove anything. Exalt Christ not man made theologies.

    • Ken Abbott

      The famous five points were actually the responses of the (mostly Dutch) Synod of Dort in 1619 to the Five Points of Remonstrance, a list of objections made by a minority of Dutch theologians and pastors against the prevailing soteriology of the established Dutch church. Luther, Zwingli, Knox, and even Calvin himself all lived well before the Synod, so to attempt to classify them as five-point Calvinists is anachronistic; many of the issues addressed by the Synod were not under discussion during the lives of these men.

  • http://authenticmission.blogspot.co.uk/ Andrew Kenny

    Just adding some thoughts from an Arminian perspective. Arminius was both Reformed and evangelical despite what Calvinists would say.What also upsets many Arminians is that they make God out to be unloving and cruel which they believe He is not. They argue that God is kind when He saves some ( the elect) when He could damn us all, whereas Arminians argue that if it required no action from man ( as Calvinists teach), God could just have easily chosen us all. Wesley even went so far as saying that the Calvinists made God out to be worse than the devil, in that, on the one hand Jesus gives an open invitation to all ( Come onto me all you are weary and heavy laden), when in reality only the few (elect) could actually come to the Saviour.

  • Jimmie Bates

    It seems that in most of the discussion on this subject the fact is ignored that both the elect (those created and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1:4-6 and, Ephesians 2:10) and, the non-elect were created in Adam in the same condition Adam was created in (upright and without the knowledge of good or evil, Ecclesiastes 7:29, Genesis 2:16-17); but when Adam willfully ate of the tree all who were alive in Adam willfully ate with him, and came to be sinners by nature and then by choice. God would have been fully justified in leaving all in that condition, and He surely would have had He not entered into a covenant with His Son the Lord Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world and, in that covenant He gave Him a bride; and the bride given Him by the Father before the creation of all men in Adam is His church which He came into this world to seek and to save, Luke 19:10. The true church is a spiritual organism rather than a physical organization; and being a spiritual organism the elect who make up His church had being in Christ before the creation and fall of Adam. And, rather than God choosing His elect out of fallen humanity His elect were created and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. Jimmie Bates

  • mallen717

    “God is deemed omnipotent…because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel….[T]here is no random power, or agency, or motion in the creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed…[T]he world is governed by God, not only because he maintains the order of nature appointed by him, but because he takes a special charge of every one of his works. It is true, indeed, that each species of created objects is moved by a secret instinct of nature, as if they obeyed the eternal command of God, and spontaneously followed the course which God at first appointed.”
    John Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.3 (4,6)

    Translation: it’s not the sinner who sins, it is God making the sinner sin. “Nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed.”

  • mallen717

    “God wills all things that come to pass….God desired for man to fall into sin. I am not accusing God of sinning. I am suggesting that God created sin.”

    RC Sproul, “Almighty Over All”, pg. 54

    “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should: why he deemed it meet, we know not. It is certain, however, that it was just, because he saw that his own glory would thereby be displayed.”

    John Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.8

  • mallen717

    “The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt subordinate to God’s purpose of eternal election. But if it is plainly owing to the mere pleasure of God that salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it.”

    “The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death.”

    “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”

    John Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.1 (3,5)

  • mallen717

    “They deny that it is ever said in distinct terms, God decreed that Adam should perish by his revolt. As if the same God, who is declared in Scripture to do whatsoever he pleases, could have made the noblest of his creatures without any special purpose. They say that, in accordance with free-will, he was to be the architect of his own fortune, that God had decreed nothing but to treat him according to his desert. If this frigid fiction is received, where will be the omnipotence of God, by which, according to his secret counsel on which everything depends, he rules over all? But whether they will allow it or not, predestination is manifest in Adam’s posterity. It was not owing to nature that they all lost salvation by the fault of one parent. Why should they refuse to admit with regard to one man that which against their will they admit with regard to the whole human race? Why should they in caviling lose their labour? Scripture proclaims that all were, in the person of one, made liable to eternal death. As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God.”

    John Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.8

  • mallen717

    “Among the temptations with which Satan assaults believers, none is greater or more perilous, than when disquieting them with doubts as to their election, he at the same time stimulates them with a depraved desire of inquiring after it out of the proper way. (See Luther in Genes. cap. 26). By inquiring out of the proper way, I mean when puny man endeavors to penetrate to the hidden recesses of the divine wisdom, and goes back even to the remotest eternity, in order that he may understand what final determination God has made with regard to him. In this way he plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.”

    John Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.4

    “And one of the most important questions that the New Testament raises to us, or admonitions given, is that we make our election and calling sure. And if you don’t know if you are numbered among the elect, I can’t think of a more important question for you to focus your attention upon until you know the answer to that question than that one.”

    RC Sproul, Lecture 4 on Predestination “The Divine Choice”

  • mallen717

    “[The five points of Calvinism] are not isolated and independent doctrines but are so interrelated that they form a simple, harmonious, self-consistent system; and the way in which they fit together as component parts of a well-ordered whole has won the admiration of thinking men of all creeds. Prove any one of them true and the others will follow as logical and necessary parts of the system. Prove any of them false and the whole system must be abandoned.”

    Loraine Boettner, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, pg. 6

  • mallen717

    Calvinism: there is nothing you can do to believe on Christ because God already determined your salvation or reprobation in eternity. Salvation and reprobation are eternal caste systems. God made a determination long before creation as to whether you would be eternally saved or eternally tormented in hell. It’s unconditional and eternal. God determines all things and bears responsibility for your eternal state.

    Scripture: Acts 16:31, “they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” Salvation is a choice. It is conditional on faith in Christ. God alone saves, but you must ACCEPT the free gift. You bear responsibility for your eternal state.

  • mallen717

    God is deemed omnipotent…because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so overrules all things that nothing happens without his counsel….[T]here is no random power, or agency, or motion in the creatures, who are so governed by the secret counsel of God, that nothing happens but what he has knowingly and willingly decreed…[T]he world is governed by God, not only because he maintains the order of nature appointed by him, but because he takes a special charge of every one of his works. It is true, indeed, that each species of created objects is moved by a secret instinct of nature, as if they obeyed the eternal command of God, and spontaneously followed the course which God at first appointed.”
    John Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.3 (4,6)

    • mallen717

      Theistic Fatalism derived from Augustinian Gnosticism.

      Calvinism is NOT THE GOSPEL.