We Presbyterians call our Christian convictions the Reformed faith. What do we mean by that name? And from where did the name come?
We call our faith “Reformed” because of the Protestant Reformation. During the medieval era, the Christian church became more and more distorted. Truths taught in the Bible were obscured. Ideas and practices without biblical warrant came to prominence. This led to a movement by Christians to reform the faith and practice of the medieval church. It is from this effort at reform that our name comes: the Reformed faith.
The Reformed faith is, first of all, a turning away from all forms of self-help salvation in order to find God’s true salvation in Jesus Christ alone. As Reformed Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the only and all-sufficient Savior of God’s people. Christians do not need to add their good works, their religious efforts, or anything else to the work of Jesus Christ. Rather, Christ by his death and resurrection has provided a full and complete salvation for the people of God.
Therefore, we enter into God’s salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. It is through believing the good news of his death and resurrection and trusting in him that our sins are forgiven and we are regarded as the beloved children of God. His sacrifice cancels all our sins. His resurrection brings eternal life to us. By faith we receive Christ and all that he has accomplished for us. In him our salvation is complete, even though we have yet to experience that salvation completely. Yet we have assurance that we are now saved, are being saved, and will be saved on the last day.
As the Reformed faith is a rejection of all human efforts to achieve salvation, it is also a recognition that the Holy Spirit alone joins and unites us to Christ in heaven. It is by the Spirit of God (not our own efforts) that we are born anew.
The Spirit of God renews our minds and remolds our wills, enabling us to believe in Jesus Christ and keeping us in that faith all our lives. It is the Holy Spirit who makes the preaching of the gospel and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper effective in our lives.
The Spirit of God leads us away from sin and into obedience to God. He is the source of our desire to do what pleases the Lord. The Spirit of God works in us to will and to do according to his good pleasure. Our good works are not the means by which we are saved. They are the fruit of salvation freely received.
The Spirit of God works in and through God’s Word, the Bible. Indeed, it was the Spirit of God who inspired the writers of the Bible so that what they wrote was what God wanted to be written. As the very Word of God, the Bible is the sole authority from God for what to believe and how to live. The Reformed faith is a return to the Bible as the standard for the faith and practice of the church. By the Bible we test what is good in the practices of the church. By the Bible we judge what to believe and what not to believe.
The Spirit of God who inspired the Bible was also at work in the Christian church in every past age, just as he is at work now. Therefore, as Reformed Christians, we do not reject the church of the past, even as we seek to reform it by the Word of God. Rather, we recognize that God is teaching us through others who lived before us. They made mistakes. We make mistakes. But we make an even bigger mistake if we throw away the wisdom of earlier ages, for then we set ourselves up to repeat their mistakes and errors. We impoverish ourselves when we neglect the treasure of spiritual insight and learning that the Holy Spirit gave to those who came before us.
As we do not reject the church that lived before us, neither do we reject the Old Testament as no longer relevant to the Christian. Rather, the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God. Its grand theme is Jesus Christ. All of it instructs us about how to live as Christians.
Of course, the Old Testament was written to the people of God under the old covenant. So we must be careful to understand how it is fulfilled in Christ and how it applies to us in the new covenant. The Ten Commandments, for example, remain an essential summary of God’s will for our lives. Likewise, the Psalms are at the heart of the Church’s prayer life.
Just as we believe that the Old Testament is God’s Word for today, we believe that the old covenant was not abolished but fulfilled in Christ. What God promised to Abraham, Moses, and David, he is fulfilling for us in Christ. The church is the new Israel, the true sons of Abraham, who inherit all the promises of God.
As God made his covenant with the Israelites and their children, so the new covenant is with believers and their children. As in the old covenant the children of the Israelites were to be circumcised, so in the new covenant the children of believers are to be baptized. It is the duty of every Christian parent to rear his or her children in the fear and instruction of the Lord. We must be diligent to pray for and with our children, for only the Holy Spirit can make baptism and Christian instruction effective in the life of a child.
God has been saving his people from the day our first parents sinned. Under the old covenant, God saved his people in the expectation of Christ’s death and resurrection. Now he saves us through union with Christ, who died and arose again. Therefore, there is one people of God and one way of salvation, namely, Christ.
The Bible has one essential message, whether that message is prophesied and symbolized in the Old Testament or declared openly in the New Testament. Likewise, since all of the covenants of the Bible are fulfilled and completed in Christ and the new covenant, we can say that after the covenant of works with Adam in the garden, there is one covenant of grace.
Behind the covenant of grace, this one way of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, is God’s eternal plan. The Bible teaches that, as believers in Jesus, we can know that we are God’s chosen people, the apple of his eye. Before the world began, God chose his people in Christ. He set his love upon us in the beginning. He loved us when we were still his enemies, and gave his only Son for us. He loved us by his Spirit, who brought us to faith in Christ. And he loves us now.
This message of God’s saving love is what we call the Reformed faith. To ourselves we say that the Reformed faith is merely the Christian faith without compromise. We do not deny that there are other Christians besides Reformed Christians. There are Fundamentalist Christians, Pentecostal Christians, Orthodox Christians, etc. But we do believe that the Reformed faith is the most consistently biblical and the most truly catholic (belonging to the whole church) expression of Christianity.
This article was written by Dr. Jack D. Kinneer (Director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, PA) and is reprinted with permission from our denominational magazine New Horizons [February 1999].