May 09

What is Reformed Theology?

Article by Matthew Crocker

A word you may hear thrown around a lot in the church is Reformed. Yet, what exactly does it mean? Just because this word gets used in various church circles, or by someone in your community group does not mean that everyone understands what it is referring to. So, what is Reformed theology?

The term Reformed comes out of the sixteenth century Protestant reformation. During this time the church of Jesus Christ existed in mainly two forms; Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. By and large, Western Europe, was a part of the Roman Catholic strand of Christian teaching. It was in this context that the Protestant reformation began. Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar and part of the Catholic church, began to see issues with the teaching of the Roman Catholic church. He took issue with the moral laxity of the priesthood, the selling of indulgences, and most importantly with the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. Luther came to realize that justification was something the Scriptures talked about as a free gift of God’s grace towards sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. The Roman Catholic church, on the other hand, taught that justification was something accomplished by Christ, but that works had to be added to it throughout life for justification to be guaranteed. To clarify, what the Catholic church taught, was not that justification had to be followed by works in order to confirm the genuineness of our salvation. Instead, they taught that works were inseparable from justification. Works such as participation in the sacraments, confession, and in Luther’s context indulgences, had the power to save ex opera operato (from the work performed). Martin Luther took issue with this theology after diligently studying the Scriptures. He famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany sparking the sixteenth century reformation. He argued that justification was through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone (sola fides, sola Christus, sola gratia). 

As the reformation continued, theologians persisted in working out this theology discerning the implications of it for the church. Perhaps one of the greatest theologians to do this was a man named John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin was a Frenchman who worked in the city of Geneva. His work in Geneva profoundly shaped the politics of that city, transformed the churches, and eventually spread to the rest of the world. There can be no denying that the thought of John Calvin has done more to form the modern world than any other. His theological system (known as Calvinism) spread to England, Scotland, Holland, North America, and many other places. It had a huge influence on these nations politic systems, the development of capitalism, and much else. John Calvin’s followers formed their own distinct churches from the Lutheran churches in Europe and were given the name Reformed churches. Today most—but not all—people who stand in the Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, and other traditions have links to Calvin’s theology. So, what is Reformed theology? What did Calvin actually teach and what does it mean to stand in the Reformed camp?

Calvin’s theology was best explicated in his magnum opusThe Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here we find the views that have been precious to the reformed church ever since. But before we get into the distinctives of Reformed theology we first need to understand it’s foundation. Reformed theology places God at the center of its theological framework. In particular it begins with the notion that God is sovereign over all things. From that basis Reformed teaching has particular distinctives that have been summarized using the acronym TULIP. This acronym—meaning total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints—was developed at the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. Let’s now consider each of these in turn. 

Total Depravity

The idea of total depravity is simply that everyone, everywhere, at all times is a sinner before a righteous God. This doctrine is confirmed by verses such as Romans 3:10-12, “As it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Likewise, just a few verses later Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Everyone, according to Scripture is a sinner in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Yet, the doctrine of total depravity goes a step further than simply stating that all people are sinners before a holy God. It also states that every human faculty, every part of mankind, has been affected by sin in some capacity. That means our bodies experience the effects of sin, our relationships experience the effects of sin, and even our minds experience the effects of sin. John Calvin writes, “We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains.”1 Our total being is affected by sin even our ability to choose rightly. This is not to say that people are as bad as they could be. In the Reformed tradition sin is restrained amongst mankind as an act of God’s common grace. But what it does mean is that the whole of the individual is influenced and marked by the sin of Adam. The implication of this is that humanity, so affected by the fall, is incapable of returning to God on their own without him working to bring them back into relationship with him. 

Unconditional Election

Unconditional election simply means that God, in his sovereign will and according to his own good purposes, chose to save some people from their sin and renew them in a relationship with him. It is unconditional because there is nothing within the individual that makes God decide to save them. Wilhelmus à Brakel, a Dutch Reformed theologian writes, “The parties of this covenant were not moved to include any of the elect on the basis of foreseen faith or good works. They were not moved by necessity or compulsion, but by eternal love and volition.”2 Since everyone sins, and since everyone is running away from God in their sin—incapable of returning to him—God in his love, saves some according to his sovereign will and plan of redemption. This idea is seen in Scripture, “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1:4-5) This can also be seen in Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Finally, Acts 13:48 says, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” God, in eternity past, chose to save some out of his love and grace. The implication of this doctrine is that God is sovereign over our salvation. We cannot say to God that we chose him, rather he chose us. 

Limited Atonement

This tends to be the most controversial of Reformed doctrines, but it is a necessary correlate to unconditional election. Simply put, limited atonement means that Christ died only for the elect, or those that God foreordained to salvation. To many evangelicals this can sound extremely unpleasant. Most of us have been taught that Jesus died for all people. Thus, to hear a doctrine which says that this assumption is not true can be met with stiff resistance. However, before rejecting this let us consider this doctrine in more detail. First, if God’s electing work is unconditional and he has chosen people for salvation before the foundation of the world then there are only a few possibilities available when explaining the work of Jesus on the cross. He either died for all people because all people are elect; or no one is elect, he died for all people, and they simply need to make the choice to believe in him; or he died for the elect specifically. The problem with the first solution is that it teaches universalism the doctrine that everyone will be saved. This seems to be opposed to what we learn in Scripture. It is evident that some people indeed will not be saved (see Rev. 21:5-8; Matt. 25:41-46; and 1 Cor. 6:9) This “solution” does not appear to solve the problem of limited atonement. Secondly, if there are no elect and people simply need to “choose” to believe then it looks as if the Biblical passages cited above under the heading “unconditional election” are wrong. Likewise, it removes God’s sovereignty from the arena of salvation. People are left to their own devices when it comes to being saved and they are capable of choosing God for themselves. This view in the early church was condemned as heresy known as Pelagianism. The final option—which I believe is the biblical one—is that Christ died for the elect. That his atonement is limited and efficacious for them alone. Yet, how do we make sense then of texts such as John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Or 1 Timothy 2:4-6, “Who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who game himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” How can it be said the Jesus was given as a ransom for all, if his atonement is limited to the elect? How can it be said that God loves the world when his Son, Jesus Christ’s death, is limited to those foreordained? I think the best way to make sense of this is to hold these two things in tension. Yes, Jesus’s death is sufficient to cover the sins of all people. His forgiveness is infinite in scope. Yet, based on what we read in Scripture as a whole it is only effective for those who are elect. Since God is God and we are not, we have not been given knowledge of who constitutes God’s elect and who does not. Therefore, our job is to proclaim the good news to sinners trusting that God will use that proclamation to save some. This avoids the pitfalls of hyper-Calvinism, Universalism, and Pelagianism. As Herman Bavinck says, “The gospel is preached to humans not as elect or reprobate [non-elect] but as sinners, all of whom need redemption.”3

Irresistible Grace

God has therefore chosen some people to salvation according to his good pleasure and will. We are not privy to know who these people are. Rather, we are called to be ambassadors, messengers, of the gospel message to all people praying and desiring that they too come to a knowledge of salvation. Since God, has chosen to save some according to his eternal decree then these people will be saved. God’s grace towards them in the gospel is irresistible. This doctrine protects the idea that salvation is by grace alone. If people were presented with the gospel and then left to their own devices to decide or not on whether they should believe this good news then basically salvation would no longer be by grace alone, but through works. It would open up the door to people thinking that their reason, their great deduction, their own wit showed them the truth of the Gospel. They are simply smarter than those who do not believe. Yet, this is not what the Bible teaches us about how people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. As we have already seen in both total depravity and unconditional election people are completely lost in sin. They bring nothing to the table by which they might be saved. Salvation is a work belonging completely to God. Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast.” 2 Timothy 1:9, “Who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” John 6:37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” In irresistible grace God illuminates our hearts to the truth of the Gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. He emancipates our will “from its downward proclivity by conquering irresistible grace” and “once our inward eyes are opened to the measure of God’s love for us . . . we will inevitably believe.”4

Perseverance of the Saints

Here we come to the last Reformed distinctive in this pentagonal set of beliefs outlined at the Synod of Dort. This particular doctrine offers assurance to the believer that they are saved and will be saved one day in the future. Due to the fact that God is sovereign over salvation, and since none of God’s words fails to come true, then we can have certainty that we too will be saved one day according to the grace of God. Jesus says, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” (John. 6:39) He will lose nothing that his Father has given him according to his good pleasure. Of course, there are outward works that demonstrate the faith we have in Jesus. The Epistle of James makes this abundantly clear, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”   (James 2:26) The faith we have in Christ necessarily results in a changed life, new affections, and obedience to his word. Therefore, the perseverance of the saints is not an excuse for antinomianism (the idea that you can do whatever you want—including continual unrepentant sin—and still be saved). Where there are no outward marks of change in the life of someone who claims to follow Christ, where there is unrepentant sin marking someone’s life, where there is no shame for failing to obey God’s word, then we can say that their faith is dead. They have not believed the gospel and failed to be obedient to God’s word. Yet, where there is repentance for sin, a desire to turn from it, a desire to run towards God, when the believer can look at their life and say, “if you were to cut my heart into a thousand pieces, on each piece you would find the name Jesus written with golden letters” there we find genuine faith in Christ.5 This person can be assured that their salvation is secure. That God will sustain them in faith, because he has chosen them out from before the foundations of the world to be his child. Be assured, therefore, of your salvation as you trust in the work of Jesus Christ to save you from your sins and continually produce holiness in your life. 

This acronym, TULIP, helps us understand the basic theology of the Reformed church. While it is not comprehensive by any means it is a good summary of the basics of Calvinist thought. If you are interested in find out more about Reformed theology, I would suggest reading three books. First, What is Reformed Theology by R.C. SproulSecondly, I would recommend reading Herman Bavinck’s The Wonderful Works of GodFinally, if you are feeling brave, then you should read John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian ReligionIt is my prayer that as you seek to study God’s word by reading our spiritual forefathers that you would be edified, that you would be sanctified, and that God would be glorified. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily held by everyone at Christ City Church. 


1John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 175. 

Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service Volume 1: God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 263. 

3 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, trans. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 36.

4 Donald Bloesch, A Theology of Word and Spirit: Authority and Method in Theology (Downers Groves: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 224. 

5 Wilhemus à Brakel, The Christians Reasonable Service Volume 3: The Law, Christian Graces, and the Lord’s Prayer, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 288.