THE PRESBYTERIAN JOURNAL, 35.46 (16 MARCH 1977): 8-9.
A distinguished Presbyterian minister appraises the care and use of Reformed distinctives—
The Faith in Perspective
by WILLIAM E. HILL JR.
The author served as pastor in the Presbyterian Church US and founder of the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship. He is now retired and a member of the Presbyterian Church in America.
A noted Southern Presbyterian theologian of a bygone generation has given a clear and cogent description of the Reformed faith, and the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism in a little book entitled The Gospel as Taught by Calvin. Dr. R. C. Reed wrote briefly but to the point, and he also sounded a note of warning and caution:
“After all, it is largely a difference touching words and names. Arminians believe that the atonement is limited in its application to those who believe; Calvinists believe nothing more and nothing less.
“Inasmuch, however, as Calvinists believe that God makes the application, they say the atonement is limited in design as well as application. But there is nothing in their view to prevent their offering Christ to every sinner and assuring him, on the authority of God, that if he will accept, he shall be saved. ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’
“This is good Calvinism; and if anyone holds to a Calvinism that does not square with the widest offers of God’s mercy, then he has gotten hold of a spurious article, and the sooner he flings it away the better. ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’ Any so-called Calvinism that does not chime with this sweet Gospel bell deserves to ‘be cast out, and to be trodden under the foot of men.’
“We ask for no leniency of judgment on any argument or inference that would tend to make the strait gate straiter, or the narrow way more narrow. Above all things, let us believe that ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,’ and that ‘him that cometh to him He will in nowise cast out.’ ”
My father, grandfather and great-grandfather, ministers in the Presbyterian Church, warmly embraced the Reformed faith and I fully concur with Dr. Reed’s thesis and warnings as they did.
Like them, I hold firmly to the Reformed faith by heritage, education and conviction. I learned the Shorter Catechism as a lad; in seminary I rememorized it as a part of a required course on the Westminster Standards, taught by a professor who had spent a lifetime teaching theology with emphasis upon the Reformed faith. Later I spent more than five years studying the Scriptures and teaching the Westminster documents to Sunday school teachers and officers. Thus I became a hearty advocate of the Reformed faith by conviction as well as by heritage and education.
Today we hear much discussion about the Reformed faith. Some of it comes from seminaries like Westminster, Reformed and Covenant. Good! But we ought to be very careful when we hear such talk to keep our views in proper perspective.
The term “Reformed faith” is not definitive. It has many variations in its use and meaning, running all the way from the form held by the Primitive Baptists, to the Dutch form with the famous five points of Calvinism, to the Scottish form which is distinctly Presbyterian.
Presbyterians in America, both North and South, held strongly to the last mentioned form until the Northern Church began to slip in the late twenties and thirties. The Southern Church soon followed, although it had held to a moderate Calvinism from its beginning through its first 75 years of life.
We find many variations of the meaning of “Reformed faith,” not only in denominations but also in great theologians. The two Hodges at Princeton disagreed between themselves on certain points, and also with Warfield, with Kuyper and the Dutch Reformed group. All these differed somewhat from the early Southern Presbyterian theologians, such as Dabney, Peck, R. C. Reed, J. B. Green and others.
None of these looked at the “Reformed faith” in exactly the same way. Indeed, the discussion about the proposed Book of Confessions—recently rejected by the Presbyterian Church US but already adopted in another form by the United Presbyterian Church USA—brings to light vast differences between the confessional statements of Reformed groups, the Dutch, the Scots, Huguenots and others.
The Westminster documents, embodying the Reformed faith, present the best summary ever written of the teachings of Scripture. Yet even the Westminster documents do not cover the whole teaching of the whole Scripture. In at least two important points, very vital teachings of Scripture are neglected. Although the Confession of Faith contains one chapter on God the Father and one on Christ the Redeemer, it has none on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
The Westminster documents do say much about the Holy Spirit, His work in salvation and in Christian growth. But there is no complete chapter in these documents where the person and work of the Holy Spirit, as presented in the whole Scripture, are brought together to form a complete picture—and this despite what they teach (and we believe) about the Trinity, “these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”
In a second vital omission, the Confession of Faith does not include the whole teaching of the whole Scripture about missions and evangelism.
Furthermore, adherents to the Reformed faith appropriately base some doctrines upon what they call “necessary, logical implications of the Scripture.” But the moment when we start talking about “logical implications,” we enter the human realm where the remnants of our fleshly natures can corrupt our thinking. That which is based on the clear teaching of the Scripture is divinely inspired; but anything based on man’s concept of “logical implications” is open to question.
Sometimes our Reformed faith loses its Biblical perspective. It does so if it opposes foreign missions and Sunday schools, as does the Primitive Baptist doctrine, or when it says, “I cannot tell a man God loves him because I don’t know if he is elect.”
Hair-splitting and quarreling are prevalent in Reformed circles. A casual glance at the history of Reformed Churches will show that the reputation they have gained through the years for being overly contentious is, sadly, all too well justified. This kind of faith fits rather well the old cliche, “. . . rather argue than eat.”
Biblical perspective is lacking when the Reformed faith lays almost exclusive preaching emphasis on teaching the Reformed faith but uses the Scripture only as a sort of proof text to support the main subject. If a seminary graduate conceives the major purpose of his ministry to be getting all the members of his church to understand and embrace the Reformed faith, he has somehow gotten off center. He is ignoring a higher priority—to teach the members of his congregation the Scriptures.
Students from some seminaries are thoroughly indoctrinated in the Reformed faith, and this is good. But many do not know the Scriptures nor how to apply them. People need to know Scripture before they can begin to understand the Reformed faith.
Being Reformed does not necessarily mean being a mature Christian, as some seem to imply. If the Reformed faith has value—and it does—all of that value is derived from the Scriptures and the place to start preaching and teaching is with the Scriptures, not with a system derived from them.
Recently, two young ministers whom I know personally have said to me, “I am starting to preach a sermon series on Sunday mornings on the five points of Calvinism. My new congregation does not seem to know too much about the Reformed faith.”
To both these ministers I replied, “Brother, you have gotten hold of the wrong end of things. What your people need to know is Scripture, and you should press diligently toward training your people in the Scriptures. Important though it may be, the Reformed faith is a derivative.”
The Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when a church or a denomination becomes sterile. Strangely enough, extreme emphasis on the Reformed faith—without putting it into proper perspective—can and too often does result in spiritual sterility. Statistics on professions of faith can reveal a very sad picture. True, there are other causes of Church and congregational sterility, but failing to keep the Reformed faith in perspective can be and often is a major factor.
It is also possible for an adherent of the Reformed faith to use the term too often, like the very “Baptistic” Baptist who can hardly open his mouth without saying Baptist. We who know and love the Reformed faith should remember that this term is not used in the Bible. Any people we seek to influence can get to the place where they say, as one member said to me not long ago, “I am sick and tired of hearing about the Reformed faith. I am fed up to the ears with it.”
Thus we can tend to judge everything by how “Reformed” it is, rather than by Christ’s standards. By such an approach we can leave the impression that doctrinism is more important than Christ Himself. If we are not careful, we can glorify a theological system above the Head. When that happens, our interpretation of the system is out of focus.
Moreover, preoccupation with Reformed theology makes theological snobs of us and creates pressure groups within a denomination. We who hold the Reformed faith should do so with humility instead of being lifted up with pride, arrogance and bigotry. We need to humble ourselves, get down on our faces before God and mourn because of our own sins. The Reformed faith is out of perspective when pride takes over, when it becomes a point of contention which splits churches and denominations because of an arrogant and “holier than thou” attitude.
Finally, the Reformed faith has lost its Biblical perspective when it tends to rule out all whom we consider to be not truly Reformed. Many of our churches today are being split on this account, torn apart by ministers or elders who push the “Reformed” approach out of perspective. For instance, in two recent papers, the authors seemed to look upon the Reformed faith as representing some kind of perfectionism, and they opposed or pitied people who did not measure up to their idea of perfectionism.
Some try to rule out what God is doing through Billy Graham and Campus Crusade, saying they make salvation “too simplistic.” But we should beware lest our presentation becomes too complicated. It may not even touch base with the ordinary fellow, and even dedicated Christians are alienated as well, because they do not understand what the preacher is talking about.
Disagreements between those espousing the Reformed faith and other evangelical conservatives weaken the testimony of the Gospel. Such polarizations are unnecessary. “Reformed” and “evangelical” are not mutually exclusive nor should they be made so.
If we begin to think that our major mission in life is to “convert” sincere Christians of differing persuasions to the Reformed faith, we are out of perspective. Those who know the Reformed faith well can and do have deep convictions. We also need to have a becoming humility, not looking with pity or scorn upon Christian brethren who are not Reformed.
To keep our Reformed faith in perspective, we should remember that He who said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” also said, “Ye should go and bring forth fruit” (John 15:16). Some suggest this fruit is the “fruit of the Spirit” mentioned in Galatians 5. If that were all, why did our Lord give us the word “go”? Polarization often occurs when one person does not understand another.
The evangelical should be willing to give close attention to the study of the Reformed faith. Likewise, the Reformed minister should try to understand evangelicals. The evangelical should be more evangelical because he is also Reformed. The Reformed man should also be more evangelical because he is Reformed. Too often, however, it does not seem to work this way. May God help us!
The Reformed faith is in proper Biblical perspective when it:
—Evangelizes vigorously, weeping over lost souls of men as did our Saviour over Jerusalem and is moved with compassion, as was our Lord when He saw the multitudes.
—Demonstrates becoming humility, “esteeming another better than self,” as the Apostle Paul said. Surely Reformed people ought to be more humble than people holding any other system of doctrine.
—Talks more of Christ than of the Reformed faith, and more of the Scripture than of doctrinal distinctives.
—Is more concerned for the salvation of a man’s soul than for teaching him the intricacies and details of what is “truly Reformed.”
—Brings forth much fruit. We who are Reformed should not forget that He who said, “I came to save the lost” also said, “I came to seek the lost.” We must follow the example of the Apostle Paul who said, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, for the love of Christ constraineth us, as though God did beseech you by us,
we pray you in Christ’s stead, be reconciled to God” (II Cor. 5:11, 14, 20).
Our Lord also said, “Herein is my father glorified, in that ye bring forth much fruit and that your fruit should remain.” We who make much of the sovereignty of God and declare the chief end of man is to glorify God must never forget that God is most glorified by our bringing forth “much fruit.” Our Lord, remember, cursed the barren fig tree.
—Preaches the Gospel in simplicity and in the Spirit as our Lord did, not as a demonstration of our scholarship or intellect. The seminaries should turn out men with burning hearts, not men educated away from the people; men with a passion for souls, not just intellectuals.
Brethren, let us glory not so much in the Reformed faith as in the cross of Christ by which we are crucified to the world and the world to us (Gal. 6:14).
The Christian faith is balanced in every respect. Every passage of Scripture has its balance. Error in interpretation occurs when we lose sight of that balance. God is one and yet three persons. Christ our redeemer has two natures, but one in person. Salvation comes by faith but faith is dead if works do not follow.
God’s sovereignty in election is balanced by man’s responsibility. When things get out of balance in any one of these paradoxes, they are out of perspective and error results. The same is true of the Reformed faith. It is good, but when it gets out of perspective, it can work much mischief.
Brethren, let us keep our Reformed faith in perspective, just as we claim to do carefully in interpretation of the Scriptures.