WRF Board Member Dr. Matthew Ebenezer Discusses the Meaning of the Word "Reformed" in Missional Contexts
Years ago, a young missionary pastor to Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), later professor of Missions at a leading Reformed theological institution in the US, told me of an interesting mission field experience. He and a missionary colleague were visiting a group of new believers from a Buddhist background in a remote village in Sri Lanka. His colleague was scheduled to preach to the people, who probably had never heard a sermon before.
He was shocked when his colleague preached a sermon on "The Five Points of Calvinism!" Here were people who hardly knew Jesus Christ let alone John Calvin, but they were being introduced to Calvinism. Needless to say many would have gone home confused that day. So often well meaning Reformed Christians miss excellent opportunities for discipling and teaching by getting distracted by important, but not urgent, issues that can wait (Five Points and the like); and bypassing more important matters (explaining the basics of Christian living and witness) that should not be delayed.
To answer this question – ‘What does the word ‘Reformed’ mean in missional contexts?’ we need to identify our audience. Are they literate? If they are, what is the level of their literacy? Do they have a basic grasp of the Christian faith? These are some questions that we need to ask before we venture to teach them about ‘Reformed’ theology. Even among the educated laity in urban and semi-urban contexts there is misunderstanding about the word ‘Reformed.’ Some believe that the word refers to the 16th century Reformation itself. Others rightly believe that it is a theological system of Calvin. Some equate Calvinism with the Five Points! A great number mistakenly believe that only churches that have 'Reformed' and 'Presbyterian' in their labels are Reformed (but what is 'Reformed'?).
Nailing down a definition is tough. This is because the word 'Reformed' has many different shades of meaning in multiple contexts. Past discussions in the WRF have shown that ‘Reformed’ can have positive or negative connotations depending on the context in which it is used. Thus, in one context the word conveys conservative, biblical doctrine; in another it means liberal and progressive theology.
One distinguishing aspect of the word ‘Reformed’ is that it teaches God's glory and sovereignty. God is sovereign in salvation; He is sovereign in the affairs of this world; He is sovereign in all things. And because He is sovereign in all things He deserves to be glorified by all creation. In this rather narrow definition, who are the ‘we’ in Reformed circles? Can anyone who gives glory to God and affirms His sovereignty in all things can be termed ‘Reformed’? Not quite, because some who affirm these great truths may yet deny other fundamental biblical doctrines.
Returning to our original question, 'What does 'Reformed' mean in a missional context?' let me give you a factual example. A man and his wife have just professed faith in Christ in northern India. He was earning a decent wage, but because of his lifestyle became a penniless alcoholic living in fear of his ‘gods.’ All this changed when he put his faith in Christ for salvation. He is now living a productive life; he has renounced his ancestral gods and openly affirms Christ as his Lord and Savior. His church is a 'Reformed and Presbyterian' church. He, his wife and two children have been attending church regularly, since the day of his conversion. Coming from a non-Christian background he is theologically illiterate. How important is it for us to explain to him (and his family) what the word 'Reformed' means? Do we give him a crash course in church history? For a person who hardly knows Christ (he's just an infant in the faith), how much should we teach him prior to baptism? How and when should we teach him the meanings of the words ‘Reformed and Presbyterian’ that describe his church? (While ‘Presbyterian’ is relatively easier to explain, ‘Reformed’ poses a challenge.)
To this man, and many like him, the word 'Reformed' will have no meaning unless it is explained in language that is comprehensible and accessible. How and what should this little church, faithful to Reformed teachings, teach this young man and his wife prior to baptism? Should they teach these new believers the background of the Reformation in order to explain the idea of ‘Reformed’? Perhaps this ought to be introduced at some later point, but at present how should these people know the important and foundational aspects of our faith?
May I suggest that in preparation for baptism, we teach only the gospel and what it means; what it is to ‘walk in Christ’ (Col.2:6); what should we ‘put off’ (Eph 4:22) and ‘put on’ (Eph 4:24; Col.3:10) to walk in newness of life? What is the Bible, how many books does it have? And, what does a Christian need to do to live a godly life? In addition I would strongly suggest that we ask these new Christians to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is especially important as it summarizes our faith in a most concise manner.
After baptism, as part of their ongoing teaching, they should be encouraged to learn a simplified catechism (for example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism or the Heidelberg Catechism which are traditional favourites. Indian Christians have the choice of a recent publication from an Asian Reformed perspective, An Asian Catechism). Other resources are the five solas of the Reformation – without going into historical detail or referring to their Latin expressions. These watchwords, which were first articulated in 16th century and reached their present form in the 20th century, highlight the difference between man-centered religion and a God-glorifying faith.
‘To God alone be Glory’ (Soli Deo Gloria) is ideally placed first, as the focus on God would be the most natural place to begin teaching a new believer. This would emphasize the fact that God is the Creator of all things and that our salvation is a result of His love for us in Christ. This God alone is to be worshipped and He calls us to live in obedience to Him. Anyone who truly affirms the sovereignty of God is called to declare His glory to the nations (Ps 96:3). Moreover, we cannot have salvation and keep it to ourselves: we cannot give glory to God and not declare His glory to the nations. Nor should we steal that glory to ourselves (Isaiah 42:8).
Next comes Christ Alone (Solus Christus). No sacrifice of any type can be pure, suitable, or sufficient to atone for our sins, except the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary. No priest is needed to intercede on our behalf to God; Christ alone does that now on our behalf in heaven. God’s story of redemption begins before the foundation of the world. It continues throughout history and reaches a climax in the coming of Jesus Christ; Christ arose from the grave and ascended into heaven; we now look forward to His Second Coming. While waiting for the Second Coming we should take every opportunity to tell the gospel of salvation to others.
Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) is our guide and authority for faith and life. God’s revelation is so that we will know Christ and walk with Him in obedience. The Scriptures were revealed to us and they speak of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Because in the Scriptures God speaks to us, we need to read the Scriptures, and obey the Scriptures, and check our lives by the measure of the Holy Scriptures. This means that ultimately we are under the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
God’s Grace Alone (Sola Gratia) must be explained well as the idea of accumulating merit dominates most Asian and Oriental faiths. Why should God show grace to a sinner? The idea of amassing merit for our salvation comes more naturally to unbelievers than receiving salvation freely. Christians should be taught that they can do nothing to aid their salvation. No amount of good works can save us. God, because of His graciousness has chosen us for salvation. We do not deserve our salvation; God through Christ has freely saved us. This does not mean that we should live passive lives; it means we should be active in doing good thereby pleasing God out of gratitude for our salvation (Eph 2: 8-10).
Finally, we can receive this salvation by Faith Alone (Sola Fide) in Christ. There is no need for faith in Christ plus anything more for us to be saved from condemnation. (We can also add here the role of the Holy Spirit Who indwells the believer and brings to mind the teachings of Jesus in Scripture.)
Our salvation is not the end of God’s dealings with us. Reformed theology stands as a corrective to this kind of thinking that exalts the creature more than the Creator (Romans 1:25). The task of the church is to teach its people and their children faithfully, consistently, and effectively. This can be done by simple catechetical teaching, the memorization of creeds, and the presentation of the story of the Bible from a Reformed perspective.
If the people are taught the teachings outlined above, what would the word ‘Reformed’ mean in missional contexts? The word ‘Reformed’ would mean giving glory to God; exalting the Creator rather than the creature; trusting Christ alone for salvation; preaching a gracious message of hope for sinners who repent in faith; and calling for a life of witness through industry, compassion for poor, and a passion for proclaiming the gospel - in gratitude for the salvation received.
I agree with Matthew's article and found it expressed in a very helpful way. One of my PhD students, Clay Quarterman (President of a seminary in Ukraine) wrote his dissertation on a similar issue, namely, whether or not Presbyterianism ought to be 'up front' in mission or added incrementally. A full PDF version can be found here: