What is the Reformed Faith?

Soon after the Reformation sparked off in 1517, there were three groups of Protestants. The first was the Lutherans following Martin Luther. The second was the Anabaptists, who were not satisfied with the degree of Reformation, and wanted the civil government to take an active part in the Reformation. The third group may be termed Reformed. The Reformed tradition finds its roots in the theology of Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss Reformer, and later John Calvin of Geneva. John Calvin was the first to systematise the teachings of the Bible, as taught by the Reformers, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). This book became essentially the most important textbook of Reformation Theology from then until now. For this reason Calvin was called the theologian of the Reformation.

And so, historically, what is commonly known as the Reformed Faith is commonly equated to what is taught by John Calvin in his Institutes, as well as his commentaries and other writings, and the writings of those who built upon his works with essential agreement. So it is common to assume that the Reformed Faith is synonymous with Calvinism. This assertion is, however, in some sense true and in some sense false. It is true that the Reformed Faith may be said to have its systematic beginnings with John Calvin. However, it must be remembered that Reformed theology did not begin and end with John Calvin. Reformed theology is based on the Scriptures and there were many before and after Calvin, who taught the same. Much of Calvin’s understanding of the doctrine of Salvation, for example, can be traced to the great Augustine of Hippo. And after Calvin, there were many who followed in his footsteps and further clarified and taught the system of doctrine set up by Calvin, and sometimes corrected his errors. Calvin, after all, was not infallible. The Synod of Dort, for example, systematised and, in some sense, clarified and dogmatised Calvinh’s Soteriology; and the Westminster Assembly fine-tuned and, in some sense, corrected Calvinh’s understanding of the Christian Sabbath. The Reformed Faith then is not synonymous with Calvinism; rather it is a system of theology that is fundamentally consistent with, or developed from, the theology of John Calvin.

With this in mind, we would consider as Reformed, such as Theodore Beza, Francis Turretin (Genevan Reformers); William Perkins, John Owen, Thomas Watson, Thomas Manton, Jeremiah Burroughs (English Puritans); George Gillespie, Samuel Rutherford, John Kennedy of Dingwall (Scottish Divines); Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Shepard (American Puritans); William Ames, Wilhelmus á Brakel, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Hoeksema, Louis Berkhof (Dutch Theologians), Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, W.G.T. Shedd, Gresham Machen, John Murray, John Gerstner (American Theologians); etc.

On the other hand, we would not consider to be Reformed, such as Jacobus Arminius, John Wesley, Charles Finney, C.I. Scofield, D.L. Moody, Billy Graham, Lewis Sperry Chafer and Charles Ryrie. But how do we arrive at this categorisation? Why do we consider the Reformed theologians Reformed when we know for a fact that they do differ on many issues? The answer lies in the fact that these theologians are agreed at the heart or core of their theology.

So what is heart of their theology? Or, in other words, what is the heart of the Reformed Faith (as we understand it today)? There are numerous ways of looking at it, but let me suggest simple points which I believe would distinguish the Reformed Faith from other systems of Christian doctrine. If we are not too fastidious over details, we can conveniently stack these seven points as a pyramid as follows:

1. Soli Deo Gloria

Glory to God only! The Reformed Faith insists that the reason for the existence of the universe and all that goes on in it is the glory of God (cf. Rev 4:11). God is not only the Creator of the Universe, but He is sovereignly sustaining, governing and directing the whole universe in all ages for His own glory (Heb 1:3).

We may not comprehend this doctrine in its entirety. For example, we sometimes find ourselves without explanation for sufferings and horrors and death we see all around us. Yet we know that the LORD is in sovereign control, and has allowed all these in His infinite wisdom. We may also not comprehend why God decreed the damnation of the reprobates. Why does He not decree the salvation of all? We may not have all the answers, but we know that if God be God, He has every right to do according to His good pleasures and for His own glory (cf. Rom 9:13–24).

We must respond to this doctrine by the heart-felt cry: “Soli Deo Gloria,” “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever” (Rom 11:36). Thus the Reformed person affirms: ’Man“s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” (WSC 1, cf. 1 Cor 10:31).

2. Sola Scriptura

Although the Reformed Faith agrees that God does reveal Himself in nature (Ps 19:1–6; Rom 1:18–32), it declares that the Scripture alone is the authoritative, objective and sufficient rule of all Christian knowledge, doctrine, practice and experience. This is because we believe that the Bible (all 66 books, no more, no less) is the Word of God (2 Tim 3:16). It is verbally and plenarily inspired by Him and is therefore inerrant, and authoritative. It is verbally inspired in that every sentence, every word, and in fact every jot and tittle, in the original language, is inspired by God (Mt 5:18). It is plenarily inspired in that it is wholly (totally), not partially, inspired of God. For this reason the Bible is authoritative.

In other words, the Bible must have the final say in how we ought to live. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, for example, must form the foundational principle of life for every Christian. Personal feelings and traditions must never be given priority over the Scriptures.

For this reason Reformed preachers generally will not use the invitation system in evangelism because it is simply unbiblical. We do not become Christians simply by putting up our hands, or walking down the aisle, or even praying the sinner’s prayer. Similarly, many Reformed churches insist that only Psalms may be sung in congregational worship because they cannot find a biblical sanction to use uninspired hymns.

3. Sola Gratia

Sola Gratia
 (by grace alone) tells us that our salvation is solely by the grace of God.

The Reformed Faith recognises, firstly, that fallen man does not deserve salvation. If anyone is saved at all, it is purely by the grace of God alone. Election is not, as the Arminians teach, “God foreknowing if a person will deserve to be saved.” None of us ever deserved to be saved (cf. Rom 9:13–15). But God in His sovereign grace elected some to everlasting life and decreed to bring them unto eternal salvation (Rom 8:29–30). It is totally the work of God from beginning to end.

Sola Gratia
 tells us, secondly, that fallen man is unable to save himself. He is not even willing nor able to respond to the Gospel by himself. The Apostle Paul tells us that even our faith is a gift of God, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8). And our Lord makes it clear: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). This teaches us that “regeneration precedes faith.” This is the hallmark of the Reformed order of salvation (ordo salutis). One who insists that faith precedes regeneration, i.e., God regenerates him because he believed, is clearly not Reformed in his thinking. On the other hand, one who understands this point well will be filled with humility and gratitude to the Lord, for he realises that he deserves nothing but eternal damnation for his rebellion against God.

4. Sola Fide

By Sola Fide (by faith alone) we mean that salvation is by faith alone: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17; Hab 2:4). This is the flip-side of the same coin asSola GratiaSola Gratia emphasises the work of God in our salvation. Sola Fidelooks at the part of the sinner. During the Reformation, Martin Luther declares that it is “the article with and by which the church stands or falls.”

Quite obviously then, Romanism does not believe in Sola Fide. Yes, they do believe in justification by faith. To say otherwise is to misrepresent them. But it is a fact that they do not believe in justification by faith alone. They believe that good works must be added to faith for justification to occur. Or, in other words, they confuse justification and sanctification, and instead of talking about imputed righteousness of Christ, they talk about infused righteousness. The Reformed Faith insists on Sola Fide. Works cannot add to our justification. The work was completed by Christ. We are justified entirely because the righteousness of Christ is imputed on us, and because Christ suffered and died in our place to pay for our sin. Faith is only an instrument to unite us with Christ.

But wait! Do not all Protestants believe in Sola Fide? How then is it a Reformed distinctive? Well, not all Protestants believe in Sola Fide quite in the same way as the Reformed. There is a group of Christians (such as the Dispensationalists), who believes that Christ can be our Saviour but needs not be our Lord and we will still be saved. To them, anyone who prays to receive Christ will ultimately be saved even if they show no sign of regeneration and no good works. According to them, such a person is a carnal Christian, and he will be saved, but so as by fire.

The Reformed Faith, on the other hand, will insist that every believer must receive Christ as Saviour and Lord, or he remains an unbeliever: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Also, a genuine believer must and will show evidence of his salvation in his life, by good works. “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26).

This characteristic of the Reformed Faith may be contrasted with the Roman Catholic position and the classic Dispensational position thus (using Gerstner’s formula):


faith + works = justification


faith = justification + works


faith = justification – works

You can see how the Reformed and the Dispensational, both Protestant groups, can say “Sola Fide.” But the distinction between those that are Reformed and those that are not is that the Reformed says: “Salvation is by faith alone, but the faith is not alone.”

5. Calvinism

We come now to the second set of Reformed distinctives. We may say that the first set is foundational and primary, but the second set is more developed though as essential to the Reformed Faith.

We are using the term “Calvinism” here in its narrow sense as it pertains to Calvin’s doctrine of Salvation, which was systematised by the Synod of Dort in 1618. The five heads of the Canon of Dort, or the Five Points of Calvinism has been conveniently arranged and abbreviated as TULIP. It is a very important expression of the Reformed Faith, and may indeed be seen as the touchstone of the Reformed Faith. One cannot honestly call himself Reformed and yet denies all or any of the five points. In that sense, the Five Points of Calvinism divides cleanly those who are Reformed and those who are not. The fact is that the majority of the Protestant church today is not Reformed when measured against the Five Points of Calvinism.

The Methodists are Arminians, who repudiate all Five Points of Calvinism; creedal Brethren churches are Dispensational, repudiating Limited Atonement; Baptist churches are mostly Arminian or Dispensational; many Presbyterian churches are Reformed in name, but are actually Dispensational or liberal; and many independent and Charismatic churches do not have any doctrinal stand or tradition at all.

What are the Five Points of Calvinism?

Total Depravity: Man is unable to do any good at all in the eyes of God who is infinitely holy. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).

Unconditional Election: God elects sinners by His sovereign grace in His own good pleasure: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (Jn 15:16).

Limited Atonement: Or Particular Redemption. Christ died to save theelect, by propitiating the wrath of God for their sin. He did not die to make salvation possible for the world. “I am the good shepherd, and know mysheep, and am known of mine. … I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14–15).

Irressistable Grace: Salvation is monergistic, solely the work of God in regenerating the sinner, so that he may have faith. The internal call of the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. “All that the Father giveth me shall cometo me” (Jn 6:37).

Preservation of the Saints: God who has begun the good work in us will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ. We can never lose our salvation. “And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish…” (Jn 10:28).

6. Covenantalism

A Reformed theologian must be a Covenantal theologian. He believes that God’s relationship with man is always covenantal (WCF 7). The Reformed person sees that Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden under a Covenant of Life upon condition of perfect obedience. This covenant is usually known as Covenant of Works or Covenant of Friendship. In any case, Adam was our representative, so when he fell, he involved the whole mankind descending from him by ordinary generation in the Original Sin. We are imputed with his guilt, and we inherit his sin nature (Rom 5:12; Ps 51:5). All mankind lost communion with God, came under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death and to the pains of hell forever (WSC 19).

But God did not leave all mankind to perish in their sin and misery. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 20 says: “God having, out of His mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a Covenant of Grace to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.”

What is the significance of Covenant Theology? Firstly, it teaches us that the Word of God is a unified whole. The theme of Redemption runs through the Bible from cover to cover. Secondly, it teaches that Christ is the focus of all Scripture. In the Old Testament, not only were the sacrifices and feasts shadows of Christ, but many historical events have typical significance in relation to Christ and His ministry. Thirdly, it teaches us that God has only one redeemed people. It does not matter if we are Jews or Gentiles, white or black or yellow, all are saved through the blood of Christ. What a joy it will be in heaven to fellowship with all the great saints of the Old Testament—Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, etc. Fourthly, we learn that the promises in the Old Testament to the people of God are applicable to the Church in the New Testament, for the Church constitutes the people of God today. There is only one Olive Tree representing the covenant people of God. The nation of Israel is no more the holy nation. The Church is. Fifthly, we learn that the moral commandments of the Old Testament are still applicable to us in the New Testament. Sixthly, we learn that the sacraments of the Old Testament are continued in the New Testament—the Passover in the Lord Supper and circumcision in Baptism. Seventhly, we learn that God’s covenantal promise is made not only with individuals but with their families as well. This held true in Old Testament times, and remains true today, which is why the early church practised household baptism.

All these, we must realise, would be meaningless to those who do not hold to the Reformed Faith, or to Covenant Theology. The Dispensationalists cut up the Bible into various dispensations and deny that the Old Testament is directly relevant to New Testament believers. As a result, if you hear a Dispensationalist preach on the Old Testament, it can be quite a vexation of the soul because everything in the Old Testament is for the Jews only.

7. Confessionalism

The final point about Reformed Faith is that the Reformed person recognises that God has His saints in all ages, whom He has illumined by His Holy Spirit in the understanding of the Scripture. Thus, the Reformed person recognises the importance of the contributions of the saints in the past and so ascribes a certain amount of authority to the creeds and confessions of the ages past—so long as they conform to the Scriptures. For this reason, among others, Reformed people generally recognise as helpful, and subscribe to, one or several Creeds, e.g., the Belgic Confession (1561); the Heidelberg Catechism (1563); the Synod of Dort (1618); Westminster Confession of Faith and its Catechisms (1648).

The Reformed person recognises that he is not alone in holding on to the doctrine that he believes and propounds; he has a cloud of witnesses of the saints already in glory. However, the creeds and confessions are not infallible, and the Reformed person can challenge the teachings of them—provided he can prove cogently from Scripture why he thinks that the creeds are wrong.

What is the use of a confession of faith? (1) It provides a concise and systematic expression of our faith and is therefore useful for teaching and learning. (2) It provides a means by which a church can be kept pure and united doctrinally. In this regard, it is important to note that in a Reformed church, the ‘official’ doctrinal position of the church is not the pastor’s position (as in the case of papalism). Rather, the church’s position is spelt out in the Confession, and disciplinary charges can and ought to be brought against pastor or elder who persists in teaching anything contrary to what is stated in the Confession.


The Christian life must be shaped and founded upon our knowledge of the Scripture. If we have a faulty understanding of the Scripture, we are bound to have a faulty Christian life. And I am thoroughly convinced that the Reformed Faith is the most correct expression of the Christian Faith. I am not denying that there are genuine and sincere Christians who do not hold to the Reformed Faith. But I am convinced that unless we are under a truly Reformed ministry and are truly Reformed in our understanding and practice of our Christianity, we will be experiencing a rather emaciated Christian life.

But having said this, I must conclude by saying that being Reformed is not so much of the head as it is of the heart. You may be thoroughly Reformed in your head, but if your knowledge does not translate into your Christian life, then, I am afraid, all your knowledge will amount to nothing. Knowing about Christ is not the same as knowing Christ. Let us therefore not only be Reformed in name, but reforming in our thinking, our lives and our practices. Let us be reforming back to Christ and His Word.

J.J. Lim