For some, this whole series of posts on Reformed Theology has been an exercise in pointless fine tuning of unimportant and impractical theological matters. My prayer is that you will not feel this way. For as I said in an earlier post, theology should drive us to doxology, that is, words of praise in worship. Theology, worship, and obedience are interrelated. Right belief and thinking about God must drive us to worship God for who he is out of love, and worship of God fuels obedience to God rather than love of idols. So, I have sought to clarify what Reformed Theology understands Scripture to teach about the application of salvation so that we might be drawn to proper worship and obedience. After all, those of us with Reformed convictions believe that everything is for the display of God’s beauty.
This post will deal with the practical implications of Reformed Theology. Just to be clear, it is important that you understand the connection made in the paragraph above in order to understand why I believe Reformed Theology does in fact matter and have a tremendous effect on individuals who believe it and churches that embrace and preach it. Theology largely determines practice. Right thinking leads to right living. Now, that is not to say that people who have the right theology always do what is right, nor does it mean that those with wrong theology cannot do what is right. That right theology leads to right practice is a general statement that describes the whole of a person’s life. So, for instance, what we believe about our sinful nature affects how we diagnose and thus attempt to fight our sin throughout our lives.
My point in prefacing this post is to make sure that people understand what I am and am not saying. As I list the practical implications of this theology, I want people to be clear that I am arguing that it is Reformed Theology that provides a solid foundation for this type of living. I am not saying that people who do not adopt Reformed Theology cannot live like this. I am saying that those who do not hold to Reformed Theology do not have consistency between their theology and their practice. Let me begin, and hopefully, this will become more clear.
Implication #1: Reformed Theology Gives Us A Focus on the Display of God’s Beauty
While all Christians affirm the centrality of the glory (beauty, reputation, honor) of God in the life of the individual Christian and the Church, Reformed Theology is the only reading of Scripture that will allow us to remain focused here. A theology that says individuals have the power in themselves to transcend their sinful hearts and choose God apart from his effective grace must focus on people.
We see this all over the American Evangelical Church. We sing songs in church and on the radio that focus on our response to God rather than on what he has done in creation and redemption. We go on and on about how we love God or how we will serve him or how we choose to obey and follow him while saying very little about the objective event in history by which our amazing God showed his love and justice.
When we don’t hold to Reformed Theology, preaching inevitably focuses on what we must do. Application becomes the most important thing for which we look and listen. We don’t want someone talking about deep theology concerning the nature of God or the intricacies of the atonement. We just want to know what we need to do! And when we preach evangelistically, we make sure we focus on how important we are to God so that people feel loved and are moved to respond. We downplay sin and the need for repentance because we just want a person to make the choice to follow God, trusting that we can talk about the ugly stuff later.
Reformed Theology on the other hand ensures that we are God centered in all that we do because it reveals to us that the Bible teaches the radical God-centeredness of God. He has done everything in creation and redemption to display his own beauty. He saved us, not primarily because he loves us so much (though he does!), but because he desires to display his own character supremely in the cross, which tells us of his justice and mercy.
Therefore, when we preach, we show how God’s Word first and foremost is a revelation of God in Christ so that people are drawn to see God’s holiness, love, justice, and power which results in seeing our own sinfulness. We are drawn to worship God because we see him held up and exalted in preaching so that our hearts are transformed and our love for created things that we have made into idols is diminished. This frees us to then obey God. Reformed Theology focuses on the glory of God which in turn deals with our hearts through the mind. Instead of constantly appealing to people’s will (choose today to do this or that) which is enslaved to sin, we point people to Christ so that the heart is changed and the will is freed.
Implication #2: Reformed Theology Destroys Any Ground for Boasting, Bringing Humility
Only Reformed Theology can give us solid ground for the elimination of all boasting because only Reformed Theology teaches that everything good comes by God’s grace. There is no getting around this. If we believe that we have the power in ourselves to choose God and that he never overrides our choice or makes us do anything, then we can and will boast that we have chosen God and others have not. Now, the boasting may be subtle and hidden, but it is always there. When we believe that we choose God, he didn’t choose us, then we will secretly despise those who cannot seem to make the right choices. We will look down on those who continue to reject the truth. We will be impatient with those who struggle to commit to Christ. Why? Because we inherently believe that they can do it if they would just choose! I did! Why can’t you? Just choose!
This thinking can only be justified theologically if God does not choose us and effectively call us by grace. When we realize that God is sovereign in election, in his effective call, and in preserving us, we are profoundly humbled and cannot look down on others. Now, that doesn’t mean Reformed people don’t act or think pridefully, but it does mean that when they do so, they are not in line with their theology. My point then is that only Reformed Theology offers us the theological ground for humility. Many non-Reformed Christians are humble, more humble than I. But, this is only by God’s grace and is not consistent with their theology.
One danger with people who come to see the truth of Reformed Theology is that they become prideful toward other Christians who do not see the truth of this theology yet. I have been this way, and I see it with almost everyone I know who becomes Reformed in their thinking. We gain this new insight (from God by grace) and then become agitated and angry toward others who don’t embrace it, forgetting that it is only by grace that any Christian knows anything true or does anything obediently!
Finally, when we understand the profound grace of God, we are able to be more and more transparent and open with others about our struggles with sin. When we grasp the profound power of God’s grace and his power to sustain us and work in us, and when we see the profound security of God’s love since he set it upon us before the foundation of the world, then we do not fear being seen as weak or admitting our profound brokenness. Hiding sin is a rampant problem in the church, and it stems from a theology that says you have the power in yourself to get your act together! So, we feel shame and confusion that we can’t seem to get a certain area of our life fixed, so we put on a show and act as if everything is ok. This fosters further hiding and denial in others because everyone else looks so put together. Reformed Theology teaches the deep and pervasive depravity of mankind, and thus, no type or depth of sin surprises us, nor does it scare us because it is exactly this type of sin that God forgives and promises to destroy in those he loves.
The next two implications I will cover together.
Implication #3: Reformed Theology Drives Us to Deal with the Heart Rather than External Behavior
Implication #4: Reformed Theology Gives Us Proper Assurance with a Focus on Christ Rather than Ourselves
I alluded to implication #3 above. Reformed Theology focuses on the heart by holding up and displaying the beauty of Christ so that our love for him grows as we come to understand who he is and what he has done. Other theologies focus inevitably on external behavior. Since the human will is the most important thing to target for non-Reformed people, we constantly urge people to choose to do this or that. The result is that we resort to tactics that manipulate people into good choices and behaviors that bypass the mind and heart which will never produce lasting change (nor will it produces the right type of behavior). The alter call is the perfect example of this sort of methodology. When we constantly appeal to the will and urge people to come forward to publicly display their decision, we run a lot of risks, especially when we extend the call with another song and another appeal, “I know God is tugging at someone’s heart out there. The buses can wait.” We risk encouraging people to make a choice to physically act and respond when in fact they may not even have had a change of heart. If I tell a person that they must believe that a pink elephant is in the room, there is no way I can make them believe that by simply telling them to choose to believe it over and over, threatening them with hell if they don’t say a prayer publicly acknowledging they believe that there is a pink elephant in the room. I must convince them in their mind that it is there, and if I do, they will certainly respond appropriately.
The effect of the alter call and this sort of appeal to the will rather than the heart and mind first is that people will inevitably begin to doubt whether or not they are really Christians. Did I really mean it when I went down front? Did I really believe? Did I really pray sincerely? I can’t tell you how many people I counsel who doubt their salvation because they are focused inwardly on their own response rather than outwardly on the objective work of Christ!
If you want God’s mercy, if you see that you are a sinner, if you understand that Christ died to pay for sin, then cry out for his mercy and trust that he has forgiven you. The strength of your faith doesn’t save you. It is the object of your faith, Jesus Christ, that saves you.
That being said, Reformed Theology helps us to focus on the heart and mind, showing people from Scripture what is true so that they are genuinely transformed and not simply pressured into doing something that they then question forever.
Implication #5: Reformed Theology Gives Us Confidence in Evangelism and the Preaching of God’s Word
If individual choice is the ultimate determining factor in a person trusting Christ, then there can be very little confidence in evangelism. What I mean is, if God does not choose us and if God never makes us do anything, then what hope do we have that anyone will believe our message? Why pray for non-believers to come to know Jesus? True, the message is beautiful and great, but this will never cause a person to believe it. We are left believing that God is really good at wooing people, but that he ultimately does not have the power (or he has chosen not to exercise power in this way) to make a person trust in the gospel.
That sort of thinking used to really cause me to be fearful and guilt-ridden in life. I used to be burdened with the salvation of every lost soul in such a way that I was constantly hammered with guilt that I wasn’t doing more to tell people about Jesus. Along with this guilt which led me to flippantly and frequently recite a gospel formula to people, I had anxiety about my failures in evangelism. If I failed to be persuasive, if I didn’t act winsomely, or if I ever did anything that affected people negatively about Christ, then I was crushed with guilt and despair since that person would probably go to hell for eternity because I screwed up.
The reality is, God does change hearts and minds. He overrides people and makes them new, and he does this through the communication of his word by his people to those who do not yet know him. We can have great confidence that people will come to know Christ when we communicate the gospel because God has chosen people that he will save through the communication of his gospel.
Furthermore, I do not have to fear that I can screw up and affect the eternal destiny of another person. I will not be perfect in my witness. I will sin and give people a bad impression of Christ, but I can be confident that God will save his own.
This in no way diminishes urgency or responsibility. I know that many will take these words to mean so, but they do not. God has given us the responsibility to urgently take the gospel to the world and to live righteous loving lives. But, I can rest assured that when I fail to do these things, it is only me that is missing out on the joy of joining in what God is doing.
Reformed Theology also ensures that when I share the gospel, I don’t gloss over objections or questions people have. I was actually trained once by some well-meaning Christians to simple say the gospel and ignore questions people had along the way so that I could get through the whole thing. This approach fundamentally fails to understand what faith is. Faith entails understanding, agreement, and commitment. To ignore questions to get to the point where I urge people to commit to Christ will only produce external converts. When we communicate the gospel, our goal is to ensure that people see Christ clearly and properly so that the Spirit can quicken them and make them new to give them faith. This understanding helps us to avoid gimmicks, gospel bait and switches, gospel pitches as if we are selling something, watering down the gospel to a message that everyone likes, and tricking people into believing (as if that is possible). It also avoids easy believism which tells people that if they pray a prayer they can have eternal assurance.
Implication#6: Reformed Theology Helps Us to Focus on Church Health Rather than Numbers and Decisions
To focus more broadly on the corporate effects of Reformed Theology, it is important to note that when a church holds to and preaches Reformed Theology, we will be more likely to focus on the health of the church than the numbers attending and the decisions people are making in response to alter calls. Everyone admits that numbers don’t mean much, and yet, ironically, numbers are still used as the primary measurement of success and effectiveness. How many times have we heard speakers introduced with the credential of having a big church? How often do we evaluate events or ministries based on attendance and decisions made? This is not to say that numbers don’t mean anything, but they do not necessarily tell us that what we are doing is good. Isn’t it true that many evil things attract large numbers? Isn’t it true that many false churches are large and see people make commitments to God each week.
Reformed Theology leads us to focus on being faithful to the means of grace, that is, to the ministry of the word and sacrament (ordinance). When we trust that God will use his word to bring about conversions and sanctification, then we seek to be faithful to preach, baptize, and celebrate the Lord’s Table. When we trust that God will use his church, we seek to create a church that is governed according to the patterns set out in Scripture rather than what is practical or efficient.
There are many examples in Scripture of men and women who were faithful to God’s word and saw little to no fruit. It is possible that we are doing everything right and faithfully and yet see no conversions. It may be that the most faithful churches in America will never be known widely because they aren’t the biggest. There is a great danger of pride when we focus on numbers. Reputations are gained when numbers pour in, and this almost always creates a pressure to remain at the top. Legacy becomes more important than faithfulness which leads to manipulative tactics or a compromise of the truth in order to maintain the numbers.
Reformed Theology prepares us to be faithful, trusting God to bear fruit, and helps us to avoid ‘evangelism at any cost and in any way.’
Implications #7: Reformed Theology Provides the Foundation for Cultural Engagement Rather than the Legalism of Cultural Withdrawal
When we don’t hold to and believe Reformed Theology, legalism and cultural separatism soon follow. How do I make this connection?
When we focus on the human will primarily or exclusively because we believe that only we have the power to choose God, then we inevitably seek to create an environment where only good choices are available. This is exactly what the Pharisees did when they created a law around the Law. In order to avoid sin, they sought to make a fence that was wider than God’s Law in order to ensure that they never crossed over into sin. This approach failed to recognize the intent of the Law, the sinfulness of our own hearts, and the goodness of God’s creation. Thus, things that were tempting to people often began to be seen as evil in and of themselves. This lead to cultural withdrawal.
We have a modern American Evangelical version of this today. Parents want their kids to grow up to become Christians, so they shelter them from the evil world out there. They send them to Christian schools, Christian sports camps, give them Christian music, and celebrate Christian movies. The goal is to allow their kids to be happy with cool stuff just like all the other kids without worrying about the evil temptations that arise from worldly stuff. Kids are taught the right words to say and made to never say the bad words. Children are also manipulated into the right behavior through shame, guilt, and fear. The result is that we raise very moral children who have no idea how to handle living in the world and who become incredibly insecure as a result (or they rebel completely against this sheltering because they were never happy in it).
This whole approach necessarily develops when we see our will as free from God’s intervention and when we believe Christianity is about choosing to love God. This means that to grow, we have to avoid temptation from the evil things outside of us rather than seeing our hearts as wicked and able to corrupt good things.
Reformed Theology avoids this mistake because it affirms the sinfulness of the human heart and the goodness of God’s creation. Instead of believing that God’s creation is bad and dangerous and must be avoided, Reformed Theology teaches that we need new hearts that only God can bring, but that when he makes us new, we can grow in our enjoyment of God’s creation, restoring it to how it was meant to be enjoyed.
Reformed Theology compels us into the world rather than pulling us into Christian ghettos and subcultures. Instead of calling everything out there evil, we are able to affirm the good and true even when non-believers make or discover it. We are able to engage the world always cautious of our own tendency to make idols but never assuming that something outside of us can corrupt us. It is the Reformed Tradition that has seen Christians engage every area of life, from politics to business, from the arts to recreation, from music to mathematics. There is no sacred/secular divide. Everything is sacred, belongs to God, and was made good to be enjoyed before God with thanksgiving and prayer.
As Jesus said, it is not what goes into our mouths that makes us unclean but what comes out of us. He also taught that it is from the heart that we speak and act.
Implication #8: Reformed Theology Ensures Proper Apologetics Rather than Attempting to Prove the Faith
This final implication (and there are many more, but how long do you want this post to be?) may seem irrelevant to many, but as someone who cares a lot about apologetics and evangelism, it is an important implication to me.
Apologetics has traditionally had two sides: positive and negative. Positive apologetics is the discipline of proving Christianity or making arguments that are meant to compel people into faith based on reason or evidence. Negative apologetics is the discipline of answering objections to Christianity and explaining how other worldviews do not have coherence or correspondence to reality.
Examples of people who are known for positive apologetics include such authors as C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Norm Geisler, and Lee Strobel to name a few. These men are all known for attempting to provide proofs or arguments from an objective starting point like reason or science that once considered, must be accepted by any rational person.
Reformed Theology shows us that this sort of approach is inappropriate and impossible because our minds and wills are enslaved to sin. We are not objective and rational people. Everyone has presuppositions and beliefs that dictate what they find to be rational and good. Reformed Theology reminds us that we must be born again in order to see clearly the truth of the gospel. So, while these men may have in fact convinced people to become Christians, they run the risk of wrongly putting primacy on reason and science over revelation which can in time lead to doubts all over again. Those who have published works of positive apologetics have been a greater help to Christians by showing that their faith is consistent with reason and science more so than convincing non-believers to become Christians.
Thus, Reformed Theology teaches us that it is appropriate to defend Christianity against objections, using reason to show why the objections are unfounded and why other worldviews don’t fit with the world. But, it also teaches us that the ultimate goal is clear articulation of the gospel which is the only thing that will cause a person to believe. Francis Schaeffer, Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and John Frame are a few apologists who utilize negative apologetics.
Much more could be said about the history, doctrine, and practical implications of Reformed Theology. I have simply begun to scratch the surface with these eight posts. That is because what I have laid out is biblical! We won’t ever be able to flush out the depths of these marvelous truths, nor will we ever exhaust the implications these doctrines have on our lives. They are immensely practical, extremely vital, and magnificently beautiful.
I don’t pretend to have answered every objection or explained everything that should be said. I hope that you will feel the freedom to interact with these posts. One of the key phrases of the Reformation Tradition is, “Reformed and always reforming.” None of us have everything figured out, but we must strive to understand as best we can and as clearly as we can what God has revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, we must always strive to conform to what he has revealed, so we always need to be transforming.
In the end, my main goal was to explain what Reformed Theology is and why it is important. Theology matters. What we believe about God, ourselves, salvation, and how it is applied will have dramatic impact on our lives and our churches. May God be glorified!