What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian? (Part II)

Posted: January 26, 2011 by limabean03 in Anglican Communion, Christian Theology, Christianity, Discipleship, Reformed Theology, Spurgeon, The Christian Life, Thought and Practice in the Diocese of South Carolina

My apologies for not posting this sooner. I’ve had a baby daughter and that has set me back a few weeks! Now that I’m back, we will discuss this question with a bit more regularity. Enjoy.

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I by clicking here

In the first post I noted that the Reformed faith is not nearly as much a way about thinking through the faith as it is a way of living life. I noted that the life of the Reformed Christian is lived out in a theocentric manner. Theocentric simply means God-centered. I noted that this is not merely an intellectual commitment, though it is certainly that. More than that however, this commitment to theocentricity is a matter of the heart, a matter of worship. In the last post I reflected on the desire of the Reformed Christian for God alone to have the glory in all things. In this post I would like to focus on what creates this desire in the first place.

We might begin this discussion using a simple metaphor. Picture a magnetic compass. If you were to shake the compass or spin it around the needles would spin as well. However, once you quit shaking the compass and the needle settled it would undoubtedly be drawn to the strong magnetic field of the North Pole. In the same way that the needle on a compass is drawn by a strong magnetic field, to be theocentric means that your heart has been drawn to God. But what draws a heart to God?

The fact that God is powerful is certainly a drawing force. Powerful people are used to others being drawn to them like moths to a flame. The wealthy, the influential, and the famous all know what its like to have groupies. Power itself and powerful people can be intoxicating. But just as power can draw, so too can power drive away. It was at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after the redemption of Israel that the people of Israel were confronted with an all powerful God. It was of course nice to know that this super powerful deity was on their side, nevertheless being in such close proximity to something so powerful was also unimaginably terrifying. We read in Exodus:

Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18-19 ESV)

If the only thing to God was his mighty power, this would be a hard case for leading a theocentric life for a theocentric life demands that one not only love God but also draws near to God. But as the reading from Exodus illustrates, it is hard to draw near raw power. The sun is nice to look at from a distance but no one wants to travel to its surface! You would be destroyed.

So the Reformed Christian recognizes that God is powerful, but the Reformed Christians knows more of God than his power. The Reformed Christian also recognizes that God is gracious. Shortly after the raw power of God was revealed at Sinai another glimpse of God was given to Moses. Moses begged God “Show me your glory!” To which God replied “I will cause all my goodness to pass before you.” And here’s what happened next:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:5-6 ESV)

God is power. There is no denying that. But his “goodness” is not merely his power, but his mercy. Charles Spurgeon combines the two describing God as powerfully merciful, or to use Spurgeon’s own language “Sovereignly Gracious.” Rather than try and describe it myself, I’ll let Spurgeon speak with his own pen.

Put the two together, goodness and sovereignty, and you see God’s glory. If you take sovereignty alone, you will not understand God. Some people only have an idea of God’s sovereignty, and not of his goodness; such are usually gloomy, harsh, and ill-humored. You must put the two together; that God is good, and that God is a sovereign. You must speak of sovereign grace. God is not grace alone, he is sovereign grace. He is not sovereign alone, but he is graciously sovereign. That is the best idea of God. When Moses said, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory,” God made him see that he was glorious, and that his glory was his sovereign goodness.

Thus it is the sovereign goodness of God that trains the heart of the Reformed Christian to desire to live in a theocentric way.  When the Reformed Christian speaks of God’s “sovereign goodness,” or “sovereign grace” this can be a term that can be applied exhaustively. Because the Reformed Christian views all of life through the lens of the glory of God, the Reformed Christian sees God’s sovereign goodness exhibited in just about everything. For example, it is God’s sovereign grace that causes the rain to fall and water the crops for the food we eat. It is God’s sovereign grace that has equipped humans with creativity to produce art, film and theatre to delight and inspire us. It is God’s sovereign grace that granted biological organisms the ability to reproduce life, which most recently has been cause for thanksgiving in my own family. However, there is a way to speak more specifically about God’s sovereign grace if we wish and that is by speaking of the person of Jesus Christ.

On a clear day if you look up into the sky you will be overwhelmed by the light of the sun. There is a tool however that can break the light of the sun down into its particulars, or spectral colors so that it can be examined more clearly. This tool is called a prism. Light in all its glory goes into the prism and then is neatly broken down and represented in the spectral colors of the rainbow. Jesus Christ is the prism of God’s sovereign grace. All of God’s goodness passes through the prism of Jesus Christ where it is made small enough, or accommodated to our senses so that we can see God’s grace clearly, understand it well, and apply it to our lives.

For example, we know that God’s provision is part of his sovereign mercy. But when we consider the provision of God, it can be quite overwhelming? What happens when the provision of God passes through the prism of Jesus Christ? In the passage below excerpted from Mark’s Gospel we’re presented with a father whose son is demon possessed. Many have tried to cure the boy, even some of Jesus’ disciples and failed. Finally, the boy is brought to Jesus. Here’s what happened next.

And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24 ESV)

Now where is God’s provision required in this story? First, both the father and the boy need a healer to come into their life to restore the health of the boy and free him from bondage. Second, the father lacks faith. “Help my unbelief!” is his cry to Jesus. The sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ is recognized. He could heal the boy, he could grant faith to the father. But, and oh what cause for great rejoicing! The grace of God in Jesus Christ is demonstrated as well! Not only can he heal the boy. Not only can he grant faith to the father. Not only can he do all these things but he wants to! Here’s how the story ends.

And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  (Mark 9:25-27 ESV)

Thus sovereignty and grace come together in the prism of Jesus Christ, applied personally to a father and his son. Those who have had the sovereign grace of God refracted upon them through the prism of Jesus Christ are changed people. They have experienced the sovereign goodness of God. Now out of a heart irresistibly changed by this experience of sovereign grace, they will seek the glory of God first in all things, but they will seek it through the prism of Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of their experience of sovereign grace. When they need righteousness, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them righteousness and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ. When they need mercy, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them mercy and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ. When they need to cultivate a loving heart, they recognize God is sovereign and gracious. He can give them a loving heart and he wants to, but he will do it through the prism of Jesus Christ.

So we find that the Reformed Christian not only lives Soli Deo Gloria, that is, to the glory of God alone. But the Reformed Christian lives this way solus Christus, that is through the prism of Christ alone.

  1. Charlie says:

    Rob – That is an absolute beautiful description of the Christian Life. Thank you. My question is why or if or how this reflection is unique to “Reformed” Christianity? – CBJ

  2. limabean03 says:


    Thanks for the encouragement and also thanks for the question. In this series, I’m aiming to answer “what does it mean to be a Reformed Christian?” as opposed to “what does it mean not to be a Reformed Cristian?” I’m hoping this discipline will keep me in league with the best of Reformed Christianity, that is speaking positively and not polemically. Also, in the first few posts of this series I will be speaking more generally and as we get further in I will move more towards specifics.

    Nevertheless, since you raise the point I might say a few things on this subject. First, Reformed Christianity, at least historically, has always seen itself in continuity with both the scriptures AND the patristic theologians which is why Reformed Christians historically have claimed to be catholic Christians. So I would hope that much of what passes for “Reformed Christianity” would not seem distinctive at all, but would resonate well with other expressions of Christian thought because they draw from such a common reservoir.

    But where the above post would be distinctive would be in vocabulary and emphasis. Lets talk vocabulary first. There are themes above that are given additional meaning by the vocabulary employed. Words like theocentric or terms like sovereign grace, or soli Deo Gloria and solus Christus indicate we are talking about a specific stream, that is the Reformed stream of Christianity. These are buzz words that indicate a tradition.

    Now lets talk emphasis. I will use a parenting example to draw this out. Most parents say I love you, give hugs, play with their kids, and provide discipline. However, some parents might emphasize hugs more than discipline or vice versa. I would hope all Christians could affirm the post above, but Reformed Christianity really, truly, exhaustively makes what I discussed above a primary emphasis in theology, faith, and practice.

    Let’s use an example. In R.C. soteriology works of supererogation performed by the saints create a treasury of merit in heaven that can be accessed by needy sinners here on earth. While merit is still mediated through the prism of Christ, it is no longer mediated SOLELY through Christ thus it is no longer solus Christus. The R.C. emphasize the primacy of Christ in merit, but not to such a degree as it would exclude merit from other sources (i.e. the saints). The Reformed Christian emphasizes the primacy of Christ to such a degree that merit from any other source is excluded.

    I hope this was of some benefit in explaining the above post. I also hope to further distinguish Reformed Christianity as we move further into particulars in later posts. Thanks and see you soon!

  3. Charlie says:

    Thank you. Very, very helpful!

  4. Sovereign Grace was the theology of the Reformation, the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the launching of the Great Century of Missions, and it is the theology that is moving now to bring the Third and greatest Awakening of all, the one that wins the whole earth to Christ in one generation and continues for another 999 generations in order to fulfill the promises of Abraham of a seed of faith as innumerable as the the stars of heaven, the sand of the sea, and the dust of the earth. This does not mean that it comes easily or without any trouble. On the contrary, there will be many a dark and anxious hour, the hour that shall try the whole earth and yet shall try every saint in every generation (our problem is with grasping a word of such a depth and bewildering complexity though written in profound simplicity). Our greatest problem is with the clarity, the perspicuity of the Book. We have a word sufficient for our situation, whatever that situation is. There is a judgmental nature about the written word, a judgmentalism that is as subtle, clever, complex, and more than adequate to meet the exigencies of the moment, a saving judgment in short. Our real problem now lies in trying to wrap our minds around profound simplicities that are infinitely wise.

    Along wth appreciation for the word must come trust in its promises, trust in the on to whom those promises must be pleaded as the reason and occasion for such a blessing as a great awakening, expecially one that will continue for a thousand generations. Surely, the Lord did not waste His breath, when he spoke of being mindful of “his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.”(I Chron.16:15) If we are bidden to remember His wonders, His marvelous works, the judgments of His mouth, those awakening, then they become the basis for our pleas to fulfill the promises. They become the basis for what we might expect. Drop down, ye heavens, Isaiah cried (45:8). And Heaven comes down, a Heavenly influence that melts the heart, a gracious presence so wonderful none can resist it…and that in conjunction with the Truths of the book, the truths of Sovereign Grace.

    The truths are Divine Paradoxical Interventions, immpossibilities with man as our Lord put it in Mk.10. Yes, God does ask and command and demand the impossible. Why? Because it pleased Him to use the absurd, the paradoxical, as the method for restoring a sense of respeonsibility and empowerment to fallen sinners. the funny part about all of this is that the paradoxes are absurdly funny and full of joy, so that one being converted cries tears of joy. Can you imagine that happening to whole communities of sinners? Can you picture Heaven breaking out in homes that are nothing better than little Hells? This time of glory for the Lord Jesus Christ is coming. God speed the day.

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