What Are the Basics of the Reformed Way of
Faith and Life?

The basic tenets of the Reformed way of faith and life, or the Reformed Tradition,* are laid out below. Reformed theology is the doctrinal system held to by the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches worldwide, commonly called Calvinism. It was not only the faith, but also the way of life of the early American colonists, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Scottish and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, French Huguenots and to some extent of the early Anglicans. It is the way of faith and life of many in other lands, not only in Europe, such as the Netherlands and parts of Germany, but in South Africa and the Far East in Korea.


1.      To be Reformed is to take one’s place in a distinctively Protestant tradition.

1.1.   Reformed has reference to the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century but is an effort within the Reformation to be more distinctively biblical.  That attempt at reform has as its most influential exponent John Calvin, and so to be Reformed is to be in some sense a Calvinist.

1.2.   Luther attempted to correct the clearly unbiblical things within the Roman Catholic Church, but he left as much of the structure alone as he could that did not fly in the face of Scripture.  Calvin attempted to critique the Church from a more strictly biblical perspective, a critique that was more earnestly attempted in the Second Reformation, as in Britain with the Puritans and Presbyterians of the Seventeenth Century.

2.      What is Reformed Theology?

2.1.   We are Catholic:  there are many elements of Reformed theology that are held in common with all other Christians:

2.1.1.      We are Trinitarian

2.1.2.      We embrace the Chalcedonian understanding that Jesus is fully human and fully divine in one person.

2.1.3.      We believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

2.1.4.      We accept biblical miracles as true.  Therefore we affirm those having to do with Jesus:  his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, his bodily resurrection, his ascension and second coming.

2.1.5.      We believe in life after death, the resurrection of the body and that all persons will stand before God in judgment.

2.2.   We are Evangelical:

2.2.1.      We believe in the great gospel distinctive:  that salvation is by grace alone, received through faith alone.  The object of our faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ.  We do not put our trust in the Law, ourselves, our works, our own faith, or in the Church, sacraments, merits of the saints, the Virgin Mary, or any other creature.

2.2.2.      We believe that in his work of bringing people into a growing relationship with his Son, God works through things such as the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

2.3.   What makes the Reformed faith distinctive within Evangelicalism?

2.3.1.      There are several loci that comprise the heart of a distinctively Reformed theology:            Sola Scriptura:  This leads one to embrace the other core issue, the sovereignty of God.  The Bible is the sole authority; only the Bible can bind the conscience of people.  Every doctrine and practice is to be critiqued from the Scripture.  While traditions, human reason and learning have value; the Bible is the Word of God, the only rule of faith and life.            The Unity of Scripture:  While there are distinct differences between the Old and New Testaments, Reformed theology sees an underlying, all encompassing unity, God’s covenant with humankind in Jesus Christ.            The Sovereignty of God:  Reformed theology embraces predestination and what is inherent in the idea biblically.

2.3.2.      How these ideas stand together is seen in unconditional election.            Unconditional election means that God chose some of the human race, not because of some inherent difference in them or foreseen in them, but for reasons known only to him.  Faith, rather than being the foreseen basis of God’s choice of an individual, is simply the means whereby that individual receives salvation, and is itself the result of effectual calling.  Faith is the result of election rather than election being the result of faith.            The objections to unconditional election are rooted ultimately in a human sense of fairness.  Although many texts having to do with God’s universal love for humankind, the universal offer of the gospel and human responsibility are often marshaled against the doctrine, human reason and emotion must yield to Scripture for the Reformed person.

2.3.3.      Reformed theology is a broad system.            There are many distinctives beyond sola scriptura and the sovereignty of God that mark one as more consistently Reformed, but the Reformed faith is a broad stream.  Though outside of the narrowest understanding of what it means to be Reformed both Charles Spurgeon and Karl Barth are Reformed theologians.            While consistent Calvinism affirms:                  Total depravity (in the sense that the whole of human nature has been affected by the Fall, not that people are as bad as they can possibly be);                  Unconditional election;                  An atonement that really brings about salvation and not simply makes it possible  (We reject the idea that Christ died to purchase easier terms for salvation and common grace to enable people to comply with these easier terms.);                  Effectual calling; and                  The final perseverance of all true believers,            One may believe in a universal atonement, as do the Amyraldians, and still be within the banks of the Reformed faith, but one cannot reject the sovereignty of God and be Reformed.            While consistently Reformed thinking would be non-Dispensational, a person can be a Dispensationalist and swim in the Reformed stream, so can those who hold the logically opposite view from Dispensationalists, Reconstructionist Theonomists.  The same is true of those who reject infant baptism, as that prince of Reformed preachers, Spurgeon.            There are Reformed theologians who have difficulty affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, as T. F. Torrance, even though the consistent and historic Reformed position affirms inerrancy implicitly in its understanding of the meaning of infallibility.

3.      What is a Reformed view of worship and government?

3.1.   Reformed worship is Word focused worship:  it understands that the Holy Trinity is glorified in the exaltation of the eternal Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. It believes that preaching is more than an intellectual exercise, but through preaching God reveals his Word that brings life, blessing and change.  Reformed worship sees the proclamation of the Word as a fundamental means of bringing efficacy to the Sacraments. Reformed worship is marked by New Testament simplicity and Spiritual liberty.

3.2.   In the Reformed understanding of human nature, all of humankind is radically affected by sin, and therefore unbridled power is a most corrupting and destructive force.   A Reformed view of government aims at checking and balancing power.  No individual has unchecked authority. Particular churches are governed by a plurality of elders whose authority is collegial rather than individual.  Particular churches are accountable to each other.  There is a balance of power within a system of ascending courts.  A Reformed approach to change is reformational rather than revolutionary.

4.      What is the Reformed approach to life?

4.1.   A Reformed approach to life is marked by liberty.  Inasmuch as Reformed people believe that only the Bible can bind the conscience, they encourage others to express their submission to the Lordship of Jesus without always dictating precisely how that submission is carried out in the details. Presbyterians have sometimes been called “drinking Baptists” or “dancing Baptists.”  It is not that Presbyterians would encourage either practice; it is simply that we believe that is a violation of the authority of the Church to legislate where Scripture does not clearly do so.

4.2.   A Reformed approach to life is marked by a concern with education.  Because the Bible is the ultimate constitutional authority for the believer, because all believers are priests with the responsibility to read and understand the Bible, and because all of life is to be under the Lordship of Christ, informed by Scripture, education is a fundamental concern of Reformed Christians.

4.3.   A Reformed approach to life is marked by a concern with the whole of life.  Rejecting the radical nature-grace dichotomy of Medieval thinking, Reformed philosophy aims at taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.  Reformed theology understands that every facet of human life, including reason and culture, has been affected by sin and redeemed by Christ and therefore allows no area to be viewed as neutral or a matter of indifference for the Christian.  A Reformed sense of vocation views all labor as a divine calling, and therefore encourages people to see themselves as ministers of Christ whether they are physicians, pastors, attorneys, artists, house keepers or teachers of little children.

Two summaries of the Reformed tradition from Southern Presbyterian theologians

“Preface,” The Reformation: A Rediscovery of Grace, William Childs Robinson:

‘It is quite in keeping with Reformation history to offer a series of theses. Accordingly, we present the Testimony of the Reformation is a series of affirmations concerning the central themes of the Christian faith thus:

The Reformation was a revival of Augustinianism. Its cutting edge is formulated in the slogans of grace thus, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, soli Deo gloria, sola scriptura.

The Reformation was a rediscovery of God, as He revealed Himself in His majesty and His holiness, in His mercy and His love, in His power and His acts.

“The Reformation was a deeper plunge into the meaning of the Gospel than even Augustine had made” (Schaff). It proclaimed Christ -- not as insufficient -- but as all-sufficient. For the Reformation is Jesus Christ clothed with His Gospel.

The article of the Reformation was justification: “We have only one doctrine -- Christ is our righteousness” (Bugenhagen).

The Reformation was a theological revival, and the Reformers witnessed to a biblical theology as the very life of the Church.

“The genius of the Reformation is best described as the rediscovery of the Holy Spirit as the dynamic presence of God in Jesus Christ under the veil of the preached Word” (H. A. Oberman).

The sociological principle of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Luther transferred concern from the Church Triumphant in Heaven and the Church Patient in Purgatory to the Church Militant here on Earth, and made every Christian under God a king for himself, a priest for others.

‘Through the Testimony of the Reformation, the sixteenth century heard the Voice of God. These studies are presented with the prayer that as we hear the witness of the Reformers, the Voice they heard may call us anew into the obedience of Christian faith. Slavery to Christ alone is the true and only freedom of the human soul, and this liberty of the sons of God is the root out of which every other freedom grows.’

William Childs Robinson (Late Professor of Church History and Polity, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia) in The Reformation: A Rediscovery of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), pp. ix-x.

* The Reformed Tradition by John H. Leith:

‘Tradition and the gospel are indissolubly united. Each is indispensable to the other and to the life of the Christian community. The gospel is God’s will “for us men, and for our salvation” as it has been worked out and disclosed in God’s revelation of himself, especially in that segment of history culminating in Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Tradition is the authoritative delivery of this gospel from believer to believer, from community to community, from generation to generation. Thus tradition has two uses. It may refer to the act of passing on, and it may refer to what is passed on. The New Testament speaks of the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 1:3) This delivery is fundamentally God’s handing over of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:31-32) “to share our existence and to effect our salvation.” It is secondarily the human act of authoritatively delivering this gospel to all people through the succeeding centuries. This secondary traditioning of the faith, this handing on of the gospel in an authoritative and living way, is essential to the life of the Christian community.’

John Haddon Leith’s (Late Pemberton Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia), An Introduction to the Reformed Tradition a Way of Being the Christian Community (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), p. 17.

Bob Vincent