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5 Myths about Reformed Theology

Michael Horton » Systematic Theology Study Mission Wisdom Community

Calvinists can be pains in the neck. I should know—I’ve been one myself on occasion. Yet, it is a terrific irony that a theology that so exalts God and lays human beings low before his majesty and grace should be championed sometimes with a spirit that contradicts it.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Reformed theology. I tackle these at length in For Calvinism. Here I’ve been asked to address a few of these in a nutshell.

1. “Reformed Theology Is Arrogant and Prideful”

There are several impressions bound up with this critique.

First, the very name suggests that we hold up John Calvin more than Jesus Christ. Truth is, “Calvinism” was coined by critics who wanted to marginalize Reformed teaching, when actually Calvin didn’t teach anything unique that you can’t find, for example, in Augustine or Luther. Furthermore, as important as he was, Calvin was one of many shapers of the Reformed tradition. Our confessions and catechisms (none of them written by Calvin) set forth what we believe. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Calvinism is just a nickname” for what we should call “the doctrines of grace.”

Second, sinful attitudes and behaviors come from our own hearts, not from the word of God. Reformed theology exalts God and his grace, while laying ourselves low as helpless sinners and rebels who are on the receiving end of his generosity. Puffed-up pride is about the most contradictory response one can imagine to the deepest convictions Reformed churches confess.

Third, new converts to anything often possess a zeal that easily morphs into a spirit that many perceive as impatient, know-it-all, and harsh. Yet again this doesn’t fit the conviction that only the Spirit can persuade people of his truth, just as he teaches us.

2. “Reformed Theology Makes Us Robots in God’s Plan”

First, this impression rests on a basic misunderstanding of Reformed teaching. Regardless of what individuals teach, our confessions teach that human beings are never forced to believe or do anything against their will. Unpacking that requires more space, so I can only refer folks to For Calvinism, where I treat this question at length.

Second, “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV). God is not a supporting actor in our life movie. We exist for his purposes, not the other way around. Nor do we “make Jesus our personal Lord and Savior.” He is the Lord and Savior of the world; otherwise we would have no hope of salvation.

Third, the whole emphasis on God’s sovereign grace is on the work of the Triune God in freeing us—our mind, will, emotions, and bodies—from slavery to sin and death. Apart from this grace, we are indeed “robots” in a sense, slaves to our sinful rebellion, as Jesus said (John 8:34). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 35). Regenerated by God’s grace through the gospel, we find ourselves loving the God who was our enemy, attracted to the law that once condemned us, drawn outside of ourselves to look up to Christ in faith and out to our neighbors in love and service.

3. “Reformed Theology Has No Grace and Love”

First, Reformed theology emphasizes that our entire salvation is due to God’s faithfulness, not ours. Yet precisely because this is true, we want to be faithful.

Second, Reformed theology underscores that in our union with Christ we receive both justification and sanctification. In the words of the Belgic Confession, “Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned” (Art. 24).

4. “Reformed Theology Kills Genuine, Heart-Felt Piety”

First, this impression is contradicted by the logic of Reformed faith and practice. How can a theology that reorients us to a God-centered view of reality kill genuine, heart-felt piety? Whenever the Apostle Paul teaches the doctrines of God’s sovereign, electing, redeeming grace, he typically erupts in praise (see for example, Romans 8:31–39, 11:33–36).

Second, precisely because “salvation belongs to the LORD” (Jonah 2:9), we are free to trust and obey without the selfish motive of trying to save ourselves or score points. As Luther put it, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.”

Third, Reformed piety is sometimes a little different from what many Christians have come to associate with “genuine, heart-felt piety.” The whole point of the gospel is to turn us outside of ourselves, while much of contemporary piety drives us deeper into ourselves. Many of us were raised in backgrounds where missing a private quiet time was viewed with more suspicion than missing church. Reformed piety includes the personal aspect, including private prayer and meditation on Scripture. Yet it emphasizes the importance of growing together: as covenant families in daily worship and instruction (catechism) and in the communion of saints gathering each Lord’s Day for the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper aren’t our means of commitment, but God’s means of grace, as he sweeps us into his unfolding drama together with his saints. Because God is at work here, we are at work there, in the lives of the others around us. Growth in grace is a team sport, not a private hobby. Reformed piety emphasizes the importance of setting aside the whole Lord’s Day for being refreshed in the communion of saints by the penetrating powers of the age to come in Christ and by the power of his Spirit through his word and sacraments.

Fourth, this emphasis on piety as a life lived in relation to others extends to our callings in the world. We don’t offer our good works to God, but to our neighbors who need the gifts—temporal and spiritual—that God has given us to share with them. Reformed piety embraces the world. We aren’t trying to score points or to transform culture, but to relate to particular neighbors right in front of us in very particular ways each day (see 1 Thess. 4:9–12). So the horizon of Reformed piety is not merely the individual heart or a personal relationship. Of course, it is that—but much more. Christ’s saving work includes the whole created order—not only souls, but bodies, and not only human beings but the natural world (Rom. 8:18–25). We are not looking for “the late, great planet earth,” but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Fifth, the criticism that Reformed theology kills genuine piety is contradicted by history. The leading theologians of the Reformation were often pastors who also wrote devotional guides, hymns, prayers, and catechisms. They were also often scientists, artists, poets, and linguists, who also founded orphanages and poor houses on the side. When Calvinists founded the early Ivy League colleges in America, they did not imagine that they might have to make a choice between the Bible and classical pagan literature or between theology and science or between piety and the arts. In their view, it was all of one piece. As Wilhelm Niesel reminds us, “The much discussed activism of Calvin is rooted in the fact that we belong to Christ and thus can go our way free from care and confess our membership in Christ; but it does not arise from any zealous desire to prove one’s Christian faith by good works.”

5. “Reformed Theology Kills Community and Mission”

I devote a whole chapter in For Calvinism to this one. So I’ll just scratch the surface here. As with misunderstanding #4, this criticism doesn’t fit either the logic or history of Reformed churches. 

First, Reformed theology teaches clearly that God works through means in fulfilling his saving purposes. After expounding the truth of election in Romans 8 and 9, Paul went on to explain how God saves his elect through the preaching of the gospel in chapter 10. If election were not true, we would all be left in our sins and there would be no point to evangelism.

Second, Reformed Christians were in the vanguard of the modern missionary movement and that evangelistic impulse has remained powerful in our churches to the present day. The first Protestant missionaries to the New World were sent by Calvin to Brazil, and Geneva (as well as other Reformed centers) was a base for the first Protestant missionary schools. Calvinists pioneered missions to China, Korea, the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

Third, given the communal emphasis highlighted above, it is difficult to imagine how Reformed faith and practice could be charged with killing community. Rather, it builds community around Christ as he is clothed in the gospel and given by the Spirit to sinners through the public ministry of preaching and sacrament, under the care of elders and deacons. This is why we confess the faith together, corporately confess our sins and receive Christ’s absolution, teach the same faith and practice across generations, and encourage Christian education and outreach.

Be Reformed by God’s Word

As I began, so I will end with the admission that we don’t live up to the wonderful truth of Scripture that we confess. There are tragic inconsistencies in our lives, as individuals and as churches. Where there are contradictions, we need to be reformed by God’s Word and Spirit. Nevertheless, it’s far better to have convictions that we fall short of living out than to live out convictions that are less faithful to God’s Word.

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