The editors of Salt Shakers asked me to write on the necessity of being Reformed. To treat this subject, it is necessary to define the terms.
The first term is Reformed, which describes the confession of the truth of scripture as it is summarised in the three forms of unity—the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt—which were officially adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618–19. Included as minor creeds in the Reformed confessions are the doctrinal forms for baptism, confession of faith, Lord’s Supper, excommunication, marriage, and the installation of officebearers.
These documents are called Reformed standards, creeds, symbols, and confessions. They are called Reformed standards because they are the rule of what is and what is not Reformed and the judge of all doctrinal controversies in Reformed churches. An appeal to the creeds is the end of controversy for the Reformed church and believer. They are called Reformed creeds—from the Latin credo (I believe) because they are the statement of what every Reformed believer and church believes to be the truth of the word of God. They are called Reformed symbols—from the Latin symbolum (badge) because like a distinguishing insignia they separate the Reformed believer and church from all others and state what it means to be Reformed. They are called Reformed confessions, from the Latin confessio (to speak together with) because by means of the creeds believers speak together as members of Reformed churches with Christ and all likeminded Reformed believers. According to scripture, what one believes must be spoken with the mouth:
But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed (Rom. 10:8–11).
These confessions are the standards of unity for Reformed churches, and they state what is necessary for the Reformed believer to believe and a Reformed church to teach in order to be considered Reformed.
In the light of certain controversies, it is necessary to state that there is no room in the Reformed standards—they specifically deny it—for any doctrine of a general favour of God to the elect and reprobate. This has and remains the issue in the controversy over common grace and a conditional covenant. The issue is not whether certain people or churches can find some texts in the Bible that they suppose teach common grace and a conditional covenant. The issue is whether the Reformed creeds teach these things? Are they Reformed according to the creeds? No proof is forthcoming. On the basis of supposed scriptural texts no one has argued that these doctrines should be included in the Reformed creeds.
The Reformed creeds do not teach a general offer of grace and salvation in the preaching of the gospel. They do not teach a general operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the reprobate, which restrains sin in them and allows them to do good works in God’s eyes. The creeds do not teach a general favour of God expressed toward the unregenerate in giving them rain and sunshine and other gifts of creation. The creeds do not teach a general favour of God in the covenant, by which God gives grace to every baptised child and promises to be the God of every baptised child. Today these false doctrines are all assumed to be Reformed, and those who deny them are set outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy or ridiculed for their rejection of them.
The Reformed creeds teach that the grace of God is for the elect only by teaching that the grace of God flows out of election: “Election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects” (Canons 1.9).1
The creeds teach the grace of God for the elect only by teaching that the cross of Christ, which is the ground of every blessing, is for the elect alone: “It was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross…should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation” (Canons 2.8). The Reformed creeds, as the standard of what is or is not Reformed, reject the doctrines of general grace as inventions and intrusions into the Reformed confessions and condemn them as false doctrines.
Being Reformed is also to be covenantal in one’s doctrine and life. The doctrine of the covenant is more distinctly Reformed than the doctrine of election. The covenant, specifically as the bond of friendship and fellowship between the triune God and His elect people in Christ their Head, is the peculiar heritage of Reformed churches. This doctrine is most simply and beautifully expressed in the Reformed Form for the Administration of Baptism: “God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us [by baptism] that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs”.
There is also a very important practical element of Reformed orthodoxy— especially Reformed covenantal orthodoxy—in the development of the truth of marriage as a lifelong, unbreakable bond. The Reformed church is always reforming, and this is true with regard to the doctrine of marriage. Marriage was always highly esteemed among the Reformed, even to the point of making its confirmation a part of the worship service. The Reformed, according to scripture, also connected marriage with the truth of God’s covenant. For instance, the Form for the Confirmation of Marriage exhorts the husband to love his wife as his own body, “as Christ hath loved his church”. The form exhorts the wife to be obedient to her husband, “as the body is obedient to the head, and the church to Christ”. And the form calls the marriage bond “a holy state”. All these statements allude to the great marriage passage in Ephesians 5:32, where Paul speaks of the “great mystery” of the marriage between Christ and His church. In the Form for the Confirmation of Marriage the Reformed fathers made statements that hint at this later development of the marriage doctrine: “Hear now from the gospel how firm the bond of marriage is, as described in Matthew 19:3–9”. In that passage Jesus said, “I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery”.
In practice the Reformed did not carry through the principle that the marriage bond cannot be broken except by death. Later, in connection with the development of the truth of the covenant as unconditional and unbreakable, the truth regarding marriage was also developed, specifically basing this truth on the reality that God’s grace toward His people never fails and His covenant is unbreakable. In that light it was seen that the covenant of marriage cannot be broken in this life. A Reformed church today must preach this, and Reformed believers today must believe this and practice it as a development and application of the Reformed truth of God’s grace and covenant.
The Reformed standards are authoritative for the Reformed believer and the Reformed church, because in all points of doctrine they do fully agree with the word of God. Every Reformed officebearer swears in the Formula of Subscription: “We heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618–19, do fully agree with the Word of God”.
Because they fully agree with the word of God, the Reformed faith of the forms of unity is not the creed of one nation, tribe, or tongue, but is universal. It is universal because it is the teaching of the word of God, which is universal and holds for all men in all time and places. The authority of the Reformed faith is not derived of itself, by virtue of its antiquity, or because of the theological brilliance of those who wrote the creeds, but its authority is derived from and is dependent on the word of God. The Reformed faith as it is expressed in the three forms can also only be judged by the word of God. To preach it is to preach the word of God. To believe it is to believe the word of God. To confess it is to confess the word of God. To defend it is to defend the word of God.
Reformed is also a church political term. Church polity is as distinctly a Reformed matter as is confession and doctrine. Church polity refers to the organisation and government of the church institute—the local church—in the world. By her unique polity Reformed churches distinguish themselves from all others. The Reformed also highly value this polity as essential for church life. Wrong church polity is the frequent cause, or at least major contributing factor, in doctrinal departure, chaotic church life, and paralysis in the church’s work.
The Reformed themselves stated the source of proper church government: “We believe that this true church must be governed by that spiritual policy which our Lord hath taught us in His Word” (Belgic Confession 30). The policy that must govern the church is not manmade, of man’s wisdom, or a matter of convenience, but it is the Lord’s and is taught in His word. It is His law and wisdom concerning the organisation of the church as His kingdom in the world. The church ignores it or sets it aside to her ruin. Jesus Christ is the sole king of the church, and His policy is the only policy that may rule in the church. The Reformed summarised this policy as to its main principles and certain practical applications in the Church Order of Dordrecht, which it adopted at the Dordt synod in 1618–19.
The importance of this polity is also expressed by the Belgic Confession in article 30: “By these means [right church government] the true religion may be preserved and the true doctrine everywhere propagated, likewise transgressors punished and restrained by spiritual means; also that the poor and distressed may be relieved and comforted”. All the grand and glorious work of the church—also the maintenance and spread of right doctrine—depends on right polity.
Without it the church descends into chaos, ceases to function, and eventually dies.
The second term that is necessary to define is being. Being Reformed is the issue, that is, whether an individual or a church is Reformed. To be Reformed is not merely a claim or a name, either on the church building or in the name registered with the government. If it is only a name, to be Reformed is nothing but hypocrisy. A church and believer must be what they claim to be.
To be Reformed is not being a certain ethnicity, coming from some nation, or having some racial or national pedigree. Reformed is not a parochial or provincial term. Reformed is as universal as the word of God is universal and as applicable to one tribe, nation, and time as it is to another tribe, nation, and tribe. Being Reformed is not having some Reformed doctrines among one’s creeds, if there are other doctrines in those creeds that contradict and overthrow them. Reformed is not synonymous with Calvinism, and there is no such thing as a Reformed Baptist.
To be Reformed is not finding support for one’s doctrinal or practical positions among certain theologians who identify themselves as Reformed. To be Reformed is not being able to speak learnedly of the Reformed tradition, for as highly as it values tradition and as suspicious as it is of anything novel, it values scripture above all else and demands that all things in the church— in doctrine, life, and worship—wholly conform to the word of God. To that end the Reformed faith demands that all conform to the creeds and church order as the faithful summary of the word of God concerning faith, life, and church government.
To be Reformed is not merely to have the Reformed creeds as one’s official creeds so that if some churches have the Reformed creeds as their creeds they may uncritically be assumed to be Reformed. If churches have the Reformed creeds as their creeds and by that make the claim that they are Reformed, then that claim may and must be tested as to whether they actually hold to those creeds faithfully. To be Reformed, then, is to be faithful to the creeds and church order in all things. It is very popular in these ecumenical days—false Reformed ecumenicity—to excuse error in the name of unity by substituting another standard for faithfulness that sounds similar but is fundamentally different. That other standard is faithfulness to one’s own tradition, faithfulness to one’s own interpretation of the creeds, or faithfulness as far as one’s church confesses the creeds. It consists at best in a reduction of the creeds to those doctrines in the creeds that the greatest number of people can agree on, and a willingness to set aside other doctrines in the creeds as less important or non- essential. This erroneous idea of being Reformed leads those who espouse it to speak of lesser Reformed churches and to excuse fellowship with them on the basis that they at least they have the Reformed creeds as their official confession, or are faithful to their church’s confession and interpretation of the creeds as far as it goes.
Rather, being Reformed according to the creeds means that there are churches in the world that are truly Reformed according to this standard who faithfully teach and stoutly defend all of their doctrines. It also means that there are churches that apostatize from this standard by approving of doctrines and practices that conflict with the Reformed standards. These are not less faithful, or lesser Reformed churches, but apostatizing and unfaithful Reformed churches, which therefore are not truly Reformed but have departed and are departing from the Reformed faith. The standard, the only standard, is faithfulness to the creeds in their entirety and rejection of all that is contrary to the creeds.
To be Reformed then means heartily to believe and to be persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine in the creeds fully agree with the word of God. To be Reformed means that one confesses this truth and adorns it with the godly life that it demands and is disposed to defend that truth. To be Reformed means to reject all that is contrary to the creeds and militates against them. For a church to be Reformed means that this doctrine is openly taught, readily received, and faithfully defended in the pulpit.
To be Reformed is also to be organised as a church according to the polity of the Church Order of Dordt. For an individual to be Reformed also means being a member of such a church in the world. The Reformed faith truly becomes a confession—to say with others—only when one confesses it as a member in a true church of Christ where these things are faithfully believed and preached.
The final term to define is necessity. What is the necessity of being Reformed, Reformed as has been defined here? Is there a necessity to be Reformed, or may an individual pick and choose his confession as a consumer picks his favourite food from the menu? Necessity implies an imperative, a demand, or command. For the believer his necessity can only be the word of God. It is necessary in this sense to be Reformed.
The Reformed faith does not come— and no Reformed church may preach it so—as an option, as a system or philosophy that men may take or leave, or alter, add to, or diminish at their pleasure. It comes as the gospel and the very word of God. The Reformed faith fully agrees with the word of God. The Reformed faith comes with the same call as the word of God: believe and thou shalt be saved; and it warns sharply that those who reject it do so at their peril. Departing from the Reformed faith one imperils his own soul and the souls of his generations. A Reformed church that departs from it imperils the souls of all its members and their generations. Believing it one believes the word of God, believes the gospel, and has the promise of salvation and life.
Because the Reformed faith fully agrees with the word of God, knowing and believing these things one knows God in Jesus Christ and that knowledge is eternal life (Jn. 17:3). Being ignorant of these truths one is ignorant of eternal life.
For the Reformed church and believer to be Reformed in confession and polity is necessary as a matter of obedience to her sole king, Jesus Christ. The necessity is a matter of faithfulness to her Lord and to the gospel. Rejecting it one hardens himself against Christ.
The necessity is thus also that being Reformed the gospel governs the whole life of the church and the believer. It is liberty for the church and believer to be ruled by the word of God and not by the word, doctrine, and commandments of men. Therein also she is useful in the maintenance and spread of the gospel, for in maintaining and spreading the Reformed faith, she maintains and spreads the gospel.
Most of all, God revealed these things for His glory; therein is the ultimate reason to be Reformed. It glorifies God in the confession of the truth of God as God himself intended in its revelation. Departing from it one must necessarily say something false about God to the denigration of His name, which for the believer is the most horrible thing imaginable and that at which he shutters. The confession of the Reformed faith, the life of holiness that the Reformed confession demands is the believer’s and the Reformed church’s soli Deo gloria.
About the necessity that compelled him and his fellow believers to be Reformed, the author of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Brès, wrote to their chief persecutor, Philip II, king of Spain:
The banishments, prisons, racks, exiles, tortures and countless other persecutions plainly demonstrate that our desire and conviction are not carnal, for we would lead a far easier life if we did not embrace and maintain this doctrine. But having the fear of God before our eyes, and being in dread of the warning of Jesus Christ, who tells us that He shall forsake us before God and His Father if we deny Him before men, we suffer our backs to be beaten, our tongues to be cut, our mouths to be gagged and our whole body to be burnt, for we know that he who would follow Christ must take up his cross and deny himself.2
In the suffering and loss that inevitably followed upon their confession, they comforted themselves—and us—with this comfort that belongs in the final judgment to those who faithfully confess Christ’s name in the world: “The faithful and elect shall be crowned with glory and honour; and the Son of God will confess their names before God his Father and his elect angels; all tears shall be wiped form their eyes; and their cause, which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates as heretical and impious, will then be known to be the cause of the Son of God” (Belgic Confession 37).
Let us be boldly, faithfully, and unashamedly Reformed in doctrine, life, and polity.
1 Quotations from the creeds and forms are taken from The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005).assigns to each covenant mother what children of God’s covenant they must bring forth, and to them He gives this great privilege. Christ determines His “children.”
2 Dedicatory Epistle to Reformed Confession of Faith, Addressed to Philip II, 1561, Trans. Marvin Kamps, Dutch and French versions in De Nederlandse Belij- denisgeschriften, ed. J.N. Bakhuizen van den Brink (2nd ed. Amsterdam, 1976 pp. 62-69.
Written by: Rev. Nathan Langerak | Issue 44