What is Reformed Theology?

There are many misnomers about what Reformed Theology is and isn’t. One thing to get out of the way is that Calvinism isn’t all that being Reformed is about. Many people use the words “Calvinism” and “Reformed” interchangeably, to mean a belief in the doctrines of grace. The word “Calvinism” comes from the Reformer John Calvin, who was the first to outline the doctrines of grace. Today, we use the acronym TULIP to outline the five main points of the doctrines of grace. So it basically boils down to mean that someone who is a “Calvinist” holds to “TULIP”, a.k.a. the doctrines of grace.

TULIP stands for:

Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)

These five categories do not comprise Calvinism in totality. They simply represent some of its main points.

When you step into Reformed theology, it does believe in the doctrines of grace as listed in the TULIP acronym, but it is much, much more. For example, you can attend a “Calvinistic” church that holds to the doctrines of grace, but if it’s faith statement mainly only covers those points, without the confessions and catechisms, (more on that below), then it cannot be called Reformed.

In my studies on theology and becoming friends with many ladies who attend Reformed churches, I made a list as I was learning. It might not cover absolutely every distinguishing aspect of Reformed theology and what a truly Reformed church looks like, but it is a fairly exhaustive list. So this is how being Reformed or a Reformed church differs from a “Calvinistic” church, being a “Calvinist,” or other evangelical branches of Christianity.

  1. Holds to the five points of “Calvinism” or the Doctrines of Grace, along with the Five Solas.
  2. Understands and believes in Covenant Theology. (Not Dispensational.) Listen to this Theology Gals podcast: “Covenant Theology” to get an idea what this means.
  3. Eschatology (end times beliefs) are usually either amillennial or historic post-millennial
  4. Baptism is for children of believers – they believe in paedobaptistism – the baptism of infants. (Listen to the podcast on Covenant Theology linked above for more on this.)
  5. They practice keeping the Sabbath.
  6. Worship style is very simple. In some cases, a church will not have any instruments and sing completely a cappella. Many of these churches sing the Psalms out of a “Psalter.” Many continue to sing the great old classic hymns. You won’t find the drums, guitars, lights, and contemporary praise songs here.
  7. Their stance on the spiritual gifts is usually cessationism. This means that they believe that the gifts of apostle, healing, tongues, interpretation of tongues, and prophecy have largely ceased. It doesn’t mean they don’t pray for a healing, but that it isn’t to be expected as “normal” and it would be a miraculous work directly from God, not that it would come through a person who claims to “have the gift of healing.”
  8. The church government is set up to include elders and sometimes deacons. They are usually divided geographically into presbyteries or synods. The expectation is that church is where believers meet to worship and learn and disciple. (As opposed to the “seeker sensitive” churches where there could be half a sanctuary filled with unbelievers on any given weekend.) They have church membership. The churches also actively practice church discipline, meaning that members living in ongoing unrepentant sin are confronted.
  9. Preaching style is usually expositional. Expository preaching is when a pastor goes verse-by-verse through the text of the Bible. The focus is on the inerrant Word of God and understanding what God says in the Bible.
  10. The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper are to be taken only by believers, and even then, done with such reverence that they have first examined their own hearts. The actual elements of the Lord’s Supper are not thought to be miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus as the Roman Catholics practice, and they are not thought to somehow contain the presence of Jesus, such as the Lutherans believe. Rather, they are a memorial, taken in remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as atonement for our sins.
  11. In historically Reformed churches and even now, they don’t have images of Jesus anywhere. There are no pictures, statues, or stained glass bearing any likeness to Jesus. Many Reformed people are sensitive even to stay away from movies and TV shows that depict Jesus, such as The Passion. (This belief is from the second of the Ten Commandments.)
  12. Churches or individuals who are truly Reformed hold to certain historical creeds, catechisms, and confessions. The creed’s that Reformed people hold to are: The Apostle’s Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Athanasian Creed, and The Chalcedonian Creed. Aside from these creeds, there are confessions and catechisms held by various denominations of Reformed believers. There is the Westminster Confession, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism. There are the “Three Forms of Unity,” which include the Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. There is “The 39 Articles,” which Reformed Anglicans and Reformed Lutherans hold. And there are Reformed Baptists that hold to the “1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.” (There’s a podcast episode of Theology Gals called, “Catechism and Confession,” that explains all of this.)

There is a podcast episode of Theology Gals called, “What Does It Mean to be Reformed?” and another one on “Calvinism” that are helpful in distinguishing what these terms really mean.

There are people like me, who are new to all of this, but when we find it, we embrace it. We feel like these things are clearly seen in the Bible, but had never encountered a church that addressed them. I do hold to these points personally – the doctrines of grace, the Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity, the Creeds, Covenant Theology, Amillenialism, and cessationism. So I consider myself a confessional Reformed Christian. However, I do not attend a true Reformed church. There are not any Reformed churches within a reasonable distance. But we go to a “Calvinistic” non-denominational church, where the doctrines of grace are upheld and the gospel message is clearly heard.

I can wholeheartedly say that I do long for attending a church that would be run like I described in the points above. (We do love our church, our pastor, and the people there!) However, as a small child, my family attended an old country Methodist church. I have very fond memories of sitting in the service with my family. I was baptized as an infant there. I memorized the Lord’s Prayer by being in the congregation, reciting it each week. The worship style was simple with a piano and a hymnal. I memorized the Doxology, (Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.), and several hymns. I remember the cold, hard pew benches and the creaking of old wood. I remember the air of reverence and the feeling of true worship. The sermons, though I don’t remember a specific one, were full of the gospel message. Through the hymns and preaching, both God’s love and His wrath, both God’s goodness and His justice were conveyed. Now I wish to go back to something like that. I’ve had enough of the full band with lights and fog machines, the squishy chairs, the man-cenetered songs and sermons, and the whipping up of emotions in some sort of crazy worship. I long for the old historical church to gather as believers to worship and grow, not to where evangelicalism and the mega-church has taken us. I wish my children had that old church experience like I did.

My point being that for all the ways modern churches have tried to “become appealing” to the masses, the ways they’ve divorced theology, creeds, confessions, and traditions, and the things they’ve done to be “better” has morphed it into something that is undesirable to me. At one time, I would have rejected Reformed theology and a Reformed church. I would have called them legalistic and restrictive and no fun. But legalism is following man-made rules, which Reformed theology is not man-made. It’s not restrictive, but rather more freeing. And I find it fun to read the Bible, study theology, and sing hymns. We moved to New England and I became a Puritan!

I hope that gives a more clear explanation of what being Reformed really means.