What Is Reformed Theology?

What Is Reformed Theology?

Written by Jonathan L. Master |
Monday, March 27, 2023

Today when people in evangelical churches refer to “Reformed theology” or to “being Reformed,” they often mean something less historically grounded. It is often the case today that when someone refers to holding to “Reformed theology,” they mean that they believe that God’s sovereign grace is at work in electing and saving sinners (the doctrine of predestination) and that God’s Word is inspired and inerrant and has absolute authority.

What is Reformed theology? What does it mean if your church is referred to as Reformed or if a presentation of the Bible’s teaching is Reformed? People in Reformed congregations ask one another, “When did you become Reformed?” or “What made you look for a Reformed church?” Maybe such questions have been addressed to you.

But what do these questions mean? What are they driving at? Are they important? And if so, how are you to understand and answer them?

Answering these common questions can be surprisingly complex. This is partly because the word Reformed has a long history and has been used in many different ways. Sometimes Reformed theology is used in a strictly historical sense and sometimes in a more theological sense. Sometimes it is meant to be precise and technical, but often its meaning is fairly basic.

Historical and Popular Views

At its most basic level, the term Reformed theology refers to the theological conclusions that flowed out of the Protestant Reformation. The early Reformers—such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin—had sharp and specific criticisms of Roman Catholic theology as it had developed in the Middle Ages. Among other things, the Reformers believed that Roman Catholic worship was unbiblical; they rejected the Roman Catholic teaching on the nature of justification and the place of individual saving faith. They also rejected Roman Catholic claims about the authority of the pope, asserting that the Bible alone held the place of final authority in discussions of doctrine. They taught that salvation comes through God’s grace alone, by faith alone. They rejected the Roman Catholic understanding of the place and meaning of baptism and communion, returning to the biblical definition of these important sacraments of Christ. These were historical concerns, but they still lie at the heart of what it means to be Reformed.

Within this general Protestant framework, there were divisions. Luther and those who followed him had different approaches from Calvin and the other European Reformers. These differences—largely on the sacraments and worship—set Lutherans apart from the other Protestants. Those who followed Luther became known as Lutherans; those who followed the other Reformers are generally referred to as Reformed.

So, from a historical perspective, Reformed theology refers to the theology of the non-Lutheran teaching that flows out of the Protestant Reformation. When the term is used in this historical way (as in much scholarly literature), it also normally implies adherence to one of the historical confessions of faith that bind together Reformed congregations and denominations.

In popular usage, Reformed theology is often identified with the so-called “five points of Calvinism”:

  1. Total depravity: the belief that human beings are corrupt at their core because of the sin of Adam.
  2. Unconditional election: the belief that God chooses those whom he saves out of his own sovereign love, not out of anything the recipients of that love have in themselves.
  3. Limited atonement: the belief that Christ’s death pays the ransom for a particular people and his salvation is definite.
  4. Irresistible grace: the belief that God’s grace accomplishes its intended result in those who are saved.
  5. Perseverance of the saints: the belief that those who are saved by God in Christ will be preserved to the end.

All of these beliefs are indeed important teachings of the Reformed tradition. Although they were not specifically organized according to the acronym by which they are known today (TULIP) until centuries later, they arose as a response to false teachers who had infiltrated the Reformed community in the early 1600s. Nonetheless, as helpful as these five points are in summarizing key biblical truths about salvation, they do not fully encapsulate, or accurately describe, all of Reformed theology.

Today when people in evangelical churches refer to “Reformed theology” or to “being Reformed,” they often mean something less historically grounded. It is often the case today that when someone refers to holding to “Reformed theology,” they mean that they believe that God’s sovereign grace is at work in electing and saving sinners (the doctrine of predestination) and that God’s Word is inspired and inerrant and has absolute authority.

The Five Solas of the Reformation

There are better ways to define the term Reformed theology, however. For John Calvin and other early reformers, the Reformation was not just about the doctrine of salvation. Worship was of central significance as well. Beyond these two primary concerns, there were other matters of faith and practice inextricably linked with Reformed teaching. Because of this, many have suggested a more full-orbed starting place in defining Reformed theology known as the “five solas of the Reformation.” The five solas (sola is the Latin word for “only” or “alone”) are sola Scriptura (Scripture alone); sola fide (faith alone); sola gratia (grace alone); solus Christus (Christ alone); and soli Deo gloria (God’s glory alone). Put together, these five affirmations express very clearly the central concerns of the Protestant Reformation.

The Covenant

Beyond the five solas, Reformed theology has always been closely identified with covenant theology. In the Scriptures, God works out his saving purposes by means of successive covenants. As we will see, a covenant is an agreement between two parties with duties, promises, and obligations. In fact, the Bible speaks of an overarching “eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20) that centers on the cross of Christ. Covenants provide the biblical framework by which we understand God’s work in Christ and his dealings with his people throughout history.

The centrality of the covenantal structure in the Bible and the Christian life can hardly be overstated, and the ramifications of this central theme in the Scriptures are significant. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that merely emphasizing predestination, or even the five points of Calvinism, does not do justice to what it means to be a Reformed Christian. Reformed theology is whole- Bible theology, and the covenant is the biblical framework that shows the unity of both the Old Testament and the New.

The Confessions

Lastly, all vibrant and enduring Reformed traditions have confessions of faith that give written expression to their convictions. The best-known of the mature Reformed confessions include the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort (which together are called the Three Forms of Unity) and the Westminster Confession of Faith, which has its own catechisms.

From the earliest days, Reformed Christians assumed that Reformed theology would be expressed in confessions of faith. Therefore, to be Reformed is to be confessional; to be part of a Reformed church is to be in a place in which one of these historic confessions is professed, taught, and followed. We will look at this more closely in chapter 4.

Defining the terms Reformed and Reformed theology is not a simple task. But for our purposes, we might say that Reformed theology is a theology that (1) affirms the five solas and all their implications, (2) recognizes the centrality of the covenant in God’s saving purposes, and (3) is expressed in a historic and public confession of faith.

With that in mind, we can move on to examine the teaching of the Bible on these points and to see how the truths treasured by the Reformers are a great blessing to God’s people.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Why is it important for us to understand terms like Reformed theology? How and where have you heard these terms used?
  2. What makes the five solas a helpful summary of biblical teaching regarding salvation? Do they omit anything significant? What biblical questions do they raise?
  3. Why are creeds and confessions necessary for the health of the church? In what ways do they protect us?

Excerpt taken from Chapter 1: What Is Reformed Theology, Reformed Theology by Jonathan Master. Used with permission.

Scroll to top