What is Reformed Theology? Part 4: A Doctrinal Look

In my last post, I set out to explain the Reformed understanding of the biblical doctrine of sin.  I concluded that the bible teaches that each individual is pervasively corrupted such that we are enslaved to sin, unable to choose, trust, seek, or love God, and thus each person is under God’s holy wrath.

This is the condition in which humanity finds itself.  If this is the case, how than can a person be saved?  Reformed theology argues that salvation is by God’s initiative from start to finish.  Man cannot work to God, freeing himself of his debt, not only because the debt is too great to pay, but because in this sinful condition, no person will even truly seek God.

Therefore, God in his mercy chose, before the foundation of the world, to save for Himself a people from fallen humanity.  To understand this free choice of God, we must understand God’s governance over creation first.

We must understand that God has already ordained or decreed how history will play out from the moment of creation through eternity future.  Everything that takes place happens because God has willed it.

Isaiah 46:8-11  8 “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors,  9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me,  10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’  11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Most people have no problem with that until they think about the implications this has when we consider that the Fall of Adam and all subsequent sin is ordained by God.  This is the biggest tension in Reformed Theology: if God controls, ordains, or predetermines history, then how is it that God is not guilty of committing sin?  Reformed theologians admit that no one fully understands God and his ways.  There is mystery in our study of Scripture.  The key is to make sure that we understand where the mystery is and where it isn’t.  For the best quick explanation of this issue, I encourage you to read John Frame’s four part explanation here, here, here, and here.  Simply put, the bible teaches that God is good and cannot do evil, but that he has ordained all things such that nothing happens apart from his ultimate direction.

Non-Reformed theologians also believe that we cannot fully understand God’s ways, but they wrongly believe that the mystery we cannot understand is how free-will and God’s sovereignty fit together.  I have already shown in my last post that free-will does not exist.  We are not able to freely choose God because we are slaves to sin.  Plus, as I have briefly mentioned here, God ordains everything in history, including human decisions.  For instance, Proverbs 21:1  says, ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.’  The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart would be another example of God’s control over human decisions.  A supreme example can be found in John 12 where John summarizes Jesus ministry as a ministry where Jesus had largely been rejected by the Jews.  John explains in terms of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry that God had hardened their hearts and blinded their eyes so that the could not and would not believe and be healed.  Thus, the popular notion of ‘free-will’ is not a biblical idea, and thus not the proper place to argue that there is mystery.

So, my point thus far is simply to affirm that God ordains history, the end from the beginning to display his own glory.  God’s main purpose, the end which he serves, is to enjoy himself through the display of his own glory.  Thus, he ordained that he would create the universe with mankind as its head.  He ordained that mankind would fall, and he set his love upon some of that fallen humanity in order to save them.  This final statement brings us to the issue of predestination.

In John 3, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he must be born again.  In the Gospel of John, this is said a few different ways: born again, born from above, or born of God.  Jesus’ point to Nicodemus was that he is corrupted to his very core and God will not allow corruption into renewed creation.  So, Nicodemus needs to be changed at his very core, in his heart, to be a new creation.  Jesus then explained this statement in Old Testament terms from Ezekiel 36: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’  Ezekiel 36 is one of the places where the prophets spoke of a future greater covenant where God would wash Israel from her iniquity and put his Spirit in their hearts.  Jesus explained that this is what Nicodemus needs.  However, in an odd turn of events, Jesus proceeded to tell Nicodemus that he cannot make himself be born again.  He explained that being born of the Spirit is out of his control, for the Spirit is like the wind, which moves as it wishes.  You cannot tell where it is going and where it comes from.  Jesus’ point: the Spirit who brings new life works on us as he determines, not as we determine.

This means that we do not believe in Jesus and then become born again, rather, we are born again that we may believe.  Again, because we are slaves of sin and corrupted, we won’t ever believe in Jesus in our flesh.  Unless we are born of God, by his initiative, we cannot trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.  So then, if we cannot choose to be born again, how is it that so many have come to believe in Jesus?  The answer is that God has chosen in eternity past to save some by uniting us to Christ:

Ephesians 1:4  he chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

Everything we have in salvation, we have because God unites us to Christ through faith.  Regeneration (being born again), justification, adoption, and sanctification all come to us because we are in Christ through faith.  God initiates salvation from start to finish.  He applies salvation to us through the Spirit beginning with the new birth which gives us faith, and ending with glorification on the last day.

How does God choose who he will save?  He chooses according to his own perfect plan in all wisdom, not because of anything we have done or would do, so that no one can boast, but for his own glory.  Romans 9.1-24 argues this very clearly.  I am not going to put the whole text in the post, so follow along as I walk through it in your own bible. Paul writes Romans 9-11 to answer an objection that he sees coming.  He has spent 8 chapters explaining justification by faith alone and the benefits we have in Christ once we have believed.  He ends chapter 8 with a long celebration that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  The objection Paul sees coming is this: didn’t God make a bunch of promises to Israel?  And didn’t most of the Jews reject Jesus?  How can we trust what you have said Paul, if God seems to have changed his promises?

Paul answers by explaining, 1) that God is free to choose people from within Israel and outside of Israel, 2) that Israel is guilty for rejecting God’s word, and 3) that God will and has used the rejection of Jesus by Israel to save Gentiles who will then in turn lead many Jews to saving faith in Jesus.  We will focus in on the first response found in Romans 9 because it is here that Paul most clearly outlines the doctrine of election or predestination.

Paul argues that not everyone who belonged to ethnic Israel belonged to the true Israel (v.6-7).  In other words, not everyone who is a Jew is a recipient of the promises.  He uses Abraham’s offspring as an example.  Ishmael was a son of Abraham, but only those in Isaac’s line were to receive the promise (v.8-10).  Some might object to this and argue that the reason Ishmael didn’t receive the promises was because he had a different mother than Isaac.  So, Paul uses another example, Jacob and Esau.  In this case, not only do they have the same mother, but they were twins born right next to one another.  However, God showed his freedom in election by choosing Jacob the younger over Esau the older.  Not only this, but Paul shows that God chose Jacob before they were even born and had the ability to do good or bad so that his purposes in election might stand (v.11-12).  The point is clear: God is free to narrow his election to some within Israel and free to extend election beyond Israel to the Gentiles.  This freedom to choose who will receive the promised blessings of God does not depend on human will or behavior but on God’s free choice.

Paul anticipates another concern in verse 14: ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’  This is our natural response to the doctrine of election.  We immediately believe this to be unfair.  Paul simply responds to this by arguing that God is free to show mercy on whomever he desires (v.15).  Election does not depend on the will of man, but on God’s free choice (v.16).  The very character of mercy is that it is freely given.  It makes no sense to talk about everyone deserving mercy.  Mercy is undeserved, and so God can show it to whomever he wills, and he has chosen to show it to some and to enforce what is just on others.  This is a key point.  It is not as if God chooses from eternity some to be saved and others to be condemned.  His choice to show mercy is not the same as his choice to overlook others.  In other words, justice is by definition, something that is universal and even handed.  All humanity deserves God’s just wrath.  All humanity stands under God’s wrath, and it is only because he has chosen to show mercy that any are saved at all.  Thus, when he hardens some, like Pharaoh or the many Jews who did not believe him during his ministry (John 12.36-43), he is merely furthering or confirming what is already true about the sinner (v.17-18).  This is why Paul can argue that we have no right to question God for finding fault with those who do not believe (v.19).  God is the creator, and he has the right to create a universe where things play out this way so that he might display his glory in both mercy and justice (v.21-24).

Some people say they believe in God’s sovereignty and in election but do not mean the same thing the bible means when it talks about these concepts.  It is common today for people to think of election as God’s action of looking into the future to see who would choose him with their own free-will, and thus, because he is powerful, he sovereignly and mysteriously works out history in a certain way to ensure those who would have chose him do choose him without overriding people’s free-will.  This understanding of election makes God’s choice dependent upon  man’s decision, which Paul explicitly states is not the reason he elects (Romans 9.16).  Furthermore, as I have shown, no one would ever choose God because we are enslaved to sin.

To summarize, Reformed Theology argues that the bible teaches that we must be born of God in order to be saved, that we cannot believe in Jesus unless we are born of God, that God determines who will be born of God, and that this determination occurred apart from any human decision or work.  God chooses who he will save in Christ, and he applies this salvation by his Spirit beginning with regeneration and ending with glorification, all of which comes by his initiative and sovereign work.  My next post will attempt to explain the effectiveness of God’s grace, or, the irresistability of God’s grace.