Reformed History and Theology


The history of the Reformed Church in America can be traced back to the early 1500s when groups of Christians separated themselves from the Roman Catholic church on the ground that biblical authority supersedes ecclesiastical (church and tradition) authority. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Church in Wittenburg Germany in 1517, the beginning of one the most dramatic shifts in the history of Christianity began. The Reformation spread across northern and central Europe and then across the ocean into the New World. Protestant churches such as Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist emerged as each sought a more biblical approach to worship and community. The Pilgrims were Reformed Christians who came to the New World looking for freedom to practice a more biblical Christian faith. The first Reformed Dutch Church was established to serve the people of a small community located at the mouth of the Hudson River in 1620 called the New Netherlands. The Reformed Church in America (then called the Reformed Dutch Church) was formed as a denomination in the early 1700s to bring unity to scattered churches founded among fledgling settlements in the 1620s. The RCA is one of the oldest denominations in North America.

Why is the Reformed Church in America called "reformed"? The churches were seeking to reform themselves back to Biblical teaching, and away from influences that corrupted the Gospel. To be ever-reforming means to be ever-adjusting, always refining the church back toward God's purposes. Reforming according to worldly influences, false teachings, and the whims of individuals are not the criteria for reformation, rather, are we being true to the Word of God? A reformed church is a church that ought to be faithful to the truth as revealed in Scripture.

Reformed theology is a systematic study of God's special revelation given to us in the Bible. Because the Bible is God's inspired Word, it is meant to be interpreted without the influence of man-made rules or traditions, and is therefore our only reliable source of truth and authority in all matters of faith and life. Reformed theology is centered on God, and therefore is dependent on God's Word alone. This principle is called "sola Scriptura" or "Scripture alone", and is one of the five "solas" of Reformation theology.

The main theme of God's relationship with mankind is that of redemption. As people born in sin, we suffer from the effects of the curse God sanctioned upon all humanity and creation as a consequence of the disobedience (sin) of Adam and Eve. This sin nature became part of natural humanity, and has so deeply affected our minds, hearts, and wills that we refuse even to acknowledge this without the help of God! God deals with our sin by providing a way of escape in the person and work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus' life was unusual in every way you can possibly imagine. His life brought such a change to the course of history that we even divide time according to His time on earth (BC and AD). But more than any other aspect of His life, His life of perfect obedience to the will of God and holy righteousness set Him apart as a very unique human being. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin woman named Mary. He was fully divine and fully human. The divine and human natures were not separate, nor blended, but are as much a mystery of the Being of Jesus Christ, as in the Trinitarian nature ofGod Himself. And so, Jesus was the first Man since Adam that was born with no sin nature!/p>

We, however, live lives of disobedience and unrighteousness continually. We can do no else. It's who we are. It's all we know. This sin nature is as real and significant as if we had been in the Garden of Eden and committed the first act of disobedience ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot overcome the sin that indwells our nature no matter how hard we try, no matter how "good" we think we are, or how many good things we try to do.

How then do we find justification? How can we be acquitted of this crime against our Creator?

Just as Adam and Eve's sin cursed us, Jesus' righteousness justifies us, but this is accomplished only through faith. Jesus was condemned to die a criminal's death by the cruellest, most agonizing death that Rome could execute, crucifixion. He received the divine punishment that we deserved. In theology, this is called double imputation: our sin is imputed to Jesus, and His righteousness is imputed to us.

All of our attempts to be good people cannot save us from eternal damnation. Without faith, the bible says, all our righteousness is as filthy rags. We must be able to admit that we are helplessly stuck in sin, then recognize our need for God's help to save us, and finally come to Jesus Christ for salvation. This is the Gospel, the Good News.

Prior to the Reformation, the preaching of the Gospel had undergone serious corruption. Rather than believing that humanity is utterly helpless without the complete and continual saving work of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), people were taught that they could earn their way to heaven by doing good deeds or even by purchasing indulgences which freed souls from purgatory in exchange for monetary gifts to the Church. In order to clearly define the biblical message of the Gospel, the Reformers outlined five principles known as the five "solas" of the Reformation. The first of these was already mentioned as "sola scriptura" or Scripture alone. After establishing Scripture as the sole authority, the Gospel was clearly understood from Scripture to be accomplished solely through grace (sola gratia), by faith alone (solafide), and in Christ alone (soli Christo) for the glory of God alone (soli deo Gloria). To this day, disagreement over the Gospel as pertaining to the five Solas remains the point of division between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Church, even if many people are theologically ignorant of this fact. As long as sinful man refuses to acknowledge God's Word as holy, inerrant, and completely authoritative, corruption of the Gospel will continue to occur, even in Protestant churches, where post-modern influences and liberal theology have supplanted Biblical integrity.

Reformed theology is sometimes called covenant theology because of the covenantal structure found throughout the biblical record. This structure was commonly used in treaties between kings and their subjects in ancient near east nations, and issimilar to the covenants made between God and His people, Israel. Recognition and understanding of this covenantal structure leads to a better interpretation of Scripture than other frameworks such as Dispensationalism, which instead divides the biblical record into seven testing periods. The three main covenants in reformed theology are the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace.

The Covenant of Redemption was agreed upon in eternity by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This covenant assured that mankind would be redeemed by the cooperative work of the triune God. Before creation and before the fallof man, God had already designed the plan that demonstrates the harmony and the unity of purpose between the triune God and His creation.

The Covenant of Works was made between God and Adam. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, and as such were meant to reflect God's holy character. The covenant, therefore stipulated that mankind was required to obey God. The sanction attached to this contract was death. When God told Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, He was clear: "when you eat of it, you will surely die." Adam and Eve had the ability to obey God, but made the decision not to. Human beings born after the fall of Adam and Eve are utterly incapable of obedience. Humanity was thus no longer able to fulfill the covenant of works.

The Covenant of Grace is made between God and sinners. Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, mankind has suffered the consequences of disobedience ever since. Although God mercifully allowed Adam and Eve to remain physically alive, theyexperienced spiritual death. No human being since then (except One) has ever been born with the ability to respond positively to God. The Bible tells us we are dead in our trespasses and sin (Ephesians 2:1-3). God, however, sent Jesus as the second Adam who was able to respond to the will of the Father. This second Adam fulfilled the agreements of the first and second covenants. This second Adam was God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ: fully God and fully man.

C.S. Lewis described the need for this God-Man (the second Adam) in his book, Mere Christianity, in this way:

"Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person ---and he would not need it." "But supposing God became a man — suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person — then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God."

The doctrines of grace are also commonly known as the five points of Calvinism. We are careful to emphasize that John Calvin did not invent these doctrines although they were outlined by Calvin in his work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. The doctrines of grace have stood the test of time ever since the apostle Paul first explained them in his epistles and on through the course of church history from Augustine to Luther to Calvin to the present day. Modern-day evangelical churches have departed from these doctrines for the most part and tended instead to embrace Arminian theology and dispensationalism.

The five points of Calvinism are easily remembered with the well-known acrostic TULIP:

T stands for "Total depravity" (humanity's radical corruption),

U stands for "Unconditional election" (God's sovereign choice),

L stands for "Limited atonement" (Christ's purposeful atonement),

I stands for "Irresistible grace" (the Spirit's effective call), and

P stands for the "Perseverance of the saints" (God's preservation of the saints).

These five points address the problem of sin, its impact on the relationship of human beings to God, and how God has ensured that humanity would not be utterly lost. These five points are essential to an understanding of the Gospel because they teach us about the sovereignty and power of a holy God and the helplessness and complete dependence of human beings upon God for life.

Links of interest
Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of RC Sproul
Desiring God, ministry of Pastor John Piper
CS Lewis Foundation