Reformed, The Name

In the year 1415 the Council of Constance ordered the bones of John Wycliff dug up from their grave, later to be burned and the ashes scattered over the River Swift in England. The reason for the bizarre fury of the church leaders was the pioneering work of translating Scripture into English, the common tongue, which John Wycliff had done the previous century.

The refocusing of attention on the Word of God had its powerful effect in the years that followed. For example, on the European continent the writings of Wycliff were read by John Huss who also longed to see the Church purified of its wicked practices. Two cartoons impressed Huss as well. In one, Christ was shown wearing a crown of thorns and the Pope wearing a crown of gold with clothing of purple and silk. In the second, Jesus is saying to the woman, "Thy sins are forgiven thee", and on the reverse side, the Pope is shown selling indulgences.1

Huss exposed many of the foolish superstitions that were promoted in the church and preached Christ's death and resurrection in the "Bethlehem Chapel" in Prague. The Pope eventually excommunicated him and declared his writings to be heretical. The Archbishop of Milan was appointed to take the office of priest from Huss and to burn him at the stake for blasphemy in 1414. His ashes were spread on the waters of the Rhine River.

Martin Luther was born in 1483. An excellent student at the University of Erfurt, he one day came across a copy of the Bible and was greatly stirred. He especially mentions the story of Hannah and Samuel and of Samuel's calling. Later in life he made a vow to become a monk and in his studies became increasingly disturbed over how to have peace with God. He did everything that the church called for and tried to do more but could not find the reconciliation that he knew was needed.

His story is profound and intensely interesting and it can be summarized by telling how he eventually discovered the truth. He was always terribly impressed with the righteousness of God and felt that his own sin was so very great. The Holy Spirit revealed to Luther that the answer to everything he sought and needed so earnestly was contained in the word grace. Romans 1:17, where the Apostle Paul is quoting Habakkuk 2:4 was rediscovered. Luther was a man energized by God to proclaim again the Gospel that had been so obscured and distorted by the Roman Church. Man is saved by grace alone, not by his own good deeds or payments of money.

Luther grasped the fact that God had revealed His perfect and absolute righteousness in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. The basic theme of the Reformation thus became the wonderful truth, the Just shall live by his faith, quoting Romans 1:17 and Hab.2:4.

John Calvin was brought into the world in 1509 at Noyon in Picardy, France. While studying law in Paris he became interested in the works of the German reformers. After a conversion that Calvin describes as sudden or, possibly "unexpected", he was thrust into a career that would have the most far-reaching effect on the world.

Building on the foundational truths of the earlier reformers Calvin wrote and taught on the wonderful sovereignty of God in salvation and showed how all creation and all history are ruled by Him and for the revealing of His great glory and majesty. Calvin showed men how to be fascinated with the love and grace of God and how God was interested in every facet of our lives and being.

For John Calvin, even the daily work of the most simple peasant or tradesman, mother or milk maid, was to be presented as an offering to God. In theology, he built on the solid base laid down by Saint Augustine, recalling that our salvation is not left up to foolish man who is "dead in trespasses and sins", [Eph.2:1-10] but rather, is based on the sovereign grace of God who knew and loved His people, in Christ, "before the foundation of the world" [Eph.1:4]. Man's eternal life was not in the hands of fickle priests or selfish Popes who wanted to manipulate and profiteer on the Gospel, but rather was secured in the eternal Covenant of Grace.

The Frenchman, Calvin, more decisively than any other, consistently presented the core issue of the Reformation, with regard to man's salvation, that man's very nature was utterly opposed to God, his will enslaved to disobedience. He and Luther were in full agreement over against those such as Erasmus, that man was not only incapable of receiving grace but was at enmity and at war with his Creator and in desperate need of sovereign mercy in regeneration. [See Erasmus' Diatribe de Libero Arbitrio in which he emphasized the importance of human free-will against Luther. See also Luther's reply, De Servo Arbitrio, 1525.]

By the year of Luther's death, 1546, Calvin had become a dominant figure of guidance and instruction in the Scripture. Other significant men, such as John Knox, of Scotland, studied with him and benefited from his insight and articulation of God's Word. Their influence, in turn, was felt throughout the world, before kings and legislatures, in universities and the world of enterprise.

One thing that characterized all of these "reformers" was their total dependence on the Holy Scriptures only. They rejected the many layers of tradition that had such a stultifying effect on the Church. They denied the unlimited and naked authority the Pope and the church hierarchy took to itself.

An example of the excesses of the Roman Church is in its worship ofthe Virgin Mary. This had "entered into the very soul of mediaeval piety and reached its height in the doctrine of her immaculate conception ",. . . titles given her "were more numerous than the titles given to Christ and every one of them is extra-biblical except the word virgin."2

From the Scriptures the reformers taught that man is to submit to God in faith, and that his faith must be in Jesus Christ and His perfect work, not in the church, in Mary, various saints or in his own good works or noble intentions.

All the reformers called men back to the worship of the Triune God and faith in Christ. Most were persecuted by and excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church after they had attempted to stand for the truth. We believe that the life-giving, freedom producing doctrine they expounded made possible the countless blessings and unparalleled prosperity that the Western nations have enjoyed since. "The Reformation restored to our belief the solid foundation of the word of God; for the sand it substituted the rock."3

Later characteristics that went along with being reformed were things like Psalm singing, use of the great creeds of the reformation era and great confessions of the early New Testament Church.

We believe that the Psalms were given to us by God for worship. They contain all of the truths we need to come to God and reflect the beauty and glory of His Name. All of them speak to us about the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ and of His work of living a perfect life, dying a sacrificial death and saving us from our sin.

All Christians have a creed even if it's only written by the local minister and printed on the back of the bulletin. Some churches make us guess what they believe. Others try to sound especially pious by claiming to take the Bible literally, which leaves us suspecting that they teach our Lord was actually a "door", that He has a real sword protruding from His mouth [Rev.1:16], or wondering how they know when to interpret what God is saying to us.

Reformed Christians admit that they need the help of the men of old that God has given His people over the centuries, the great men who hammered out the tough, hard to understand doctrines like the Trinity, and defining the Person of Christ.

We are talking about the Councils of Nicaea in 325 A.D., Ephesus in 431 A.D., and Chalcedon in 451 A.D., to name a few. For creeds we mean the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed which all were written to emphasize the truth of the Trinity and the Deity of our Lord.

For confessions of faith, that is, letting you know what we believe the Bible says, we have to have some help too. For this we are powerfully moved by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1648, the authors of which had the benefit of many earlier confessions on which to draw. To help us better organize and remember Biblical truth we memorize a lot of its verses and we use catechisms which divide everything up into simple little questions and answers. For this we make use of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which, it says, "was written for young children", but which we find awesome enough.

So, in all of this we hope you will appreciate what it means to be called reformed. We are not a place that bad people are sent to have their behavior improved, although that is also true of our purpose. Instead, the term stems from that period of Church history when the teaching and practices of the Church had become so wicked and misleading that God had to raise up strong leaders and careful students of the Bible to re-direct or reform it from the bottom up.

* * *

A summary of what it means to be called "reformed" would include:

  1. focusing attention primarily on the Word of God, sola scriptura,

  2. emphasizing that our eternal salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ,

  3. delighting to hear about the fact that it was God who loved us first and determined to save us by calling us to repentance through the preaching of the Gospel,

  4. finding our comfort in the truth of God's sovereign rule of all history and His causing all things to fall out to reveal His glory, and

  5. becoming serious students of the Bible by using the pattern of organization provided by the great creeds and confessions that God gave His people, thus attempting to keep away from "trendy" or sensational theological ventures.

Other names that are generally synonymous with "reformed" are, Calvinist and Presbyterian.

What is in a name? What has been your impression of our name? What have you been told?

Rev. Dale K. Dykema

End Notes

  1. S. M. Houghton, Sketches From Church History, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1980, p.69.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F. L. Cross, Editor, Oxford University Press, London, 1957, pp.459-460.
  3. Philip Schaff, History Of The Christian Church, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1907, vol.V., pp.352-353.
  4. J. H. Merle d'Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, [Reprinted from the London Ed.1846] p.834.
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