On Being Reformed

Mention to a stranger that you are “Christian Reformed” and watch his eyes cloud over. He gets the Christian part. But Reformed? What were you before? he wonders. A drunk? A hustler?

Trying to explain that, actually, you belong to a church of the Reformed branch of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation with roots in Switzerland, France, England, and Scotland, and with a system of church government and of doctrine that stems principally from the thought of Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and Bullinger—well, that doesn’t bring sunny skies to our stranger’s eyes. He now looks at you the way people do when you try to explain one of your jokes to them.

And, yet, maybe it’s OK that to many people “Reformed Christianity” has all the definition of a fog bank. The truth is that there’s little about us that is really distinctive. We should worry if there were. It’s cults and heretics who want to be different from everybody else. Reformed Christians, by contrast, are just regular, meat-and-potatoes Protestants who, like all other Christians, owe much to the church fathers and especially to the great Saint Augustine (354-430).

Even after the Reformation, we Protestants still share a good deal of doctrine not only with each other but also with Rome. Read The Catechism of the Catholic Church and you will see how much. As C.S. Lewis showed us in his modern classic, there is such a thing as Mere Christianity.

Still, all major church groups have their own ways of being Christian—their own worldview, doctrinal emphases, ministry patterns, church government. Few items in this mix are unique ingredients: it’s the particular combination of them that gives a group its character.

So Reformed Christians, too, have typical characteristics—ways, you might say, of “speaking Christian” with a Reformed accent. For example, it’s characteristic of Reformed Christians to make much of the need for disciplined holiness in our new life, a holiness motivated by gratitude, shaped by God’s law, and practiced through a daily “dying-away of the old self” and “coming-to-life of the new self.” In the March Banner, Rebecca Prins captures this characteristic emphasis by writing simply that “to be Reformed is to be always changing our lifestyle so that it is pleasing to God,” and she adds, significantly, that in secular settings this is a profoundly countercultural move.

A second characteristic: Reformed Christians take a huge view of the kingdom of God and of God’s sovereignty within it. God’s realm includes the church as chief instrument of the kingdom, but also government and law, medicine, sports, education, music, food production, social services, and any other arena you can think of. God is the author of all that is good in these things, the foe of all that is corrupt in them, and, one day, the perfecter of all—including us. We cannot save ourselves; Dwayne Felver is entirely right to testify that salvation is through faith alone.

Still, in the coming of the kingdom God has called us to play a role by celebrating what’s good, working for reform in what isn’t, and looking forward in hope to God’s redemption of all in the new heaven and earth. We’re “co-workers with Christ” in this, as Melissa Groot writes. “All of life is part of Christian service,” declares Harry Kits. Kelly Brower lifts up the resurrection of Jesus as the chief sign of God’s triumph in the end, and delights in her calling to praise God in the interim through her dancing. And Jeannette Smith draws comfort from God’s sovereignty in a world that otherwise can seem so desolate. All six respondents speak with a Reformed accent.

for discussion
  1. If a stranger asked you what it means to be Christian Reformed, what would you say?
  2. In what ways do Reformed Christians differ from their Protestant neighbors?
  3. Rev. Plantinga says that “we Protestants still share a good deal of doctrine not only with each other but also with Rome.” What essential Christian teachings do we have in common with Catholics?
  4. What questions do you still have about being a Reformed Christian?
  5. How does the Reformed world-and-life view impact your everyday life?

About the Author

Cornelius (Neal) Plantinga was formerly President of Calvin Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Research Fellow in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

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