What is Reformed Theology?

Dr. R. C. Sproul has been teaching a very helpful, informative series of lessons on “What is Reformed Theology?” He is an excellent teacher, and I learned some new things today.

He began the series with a discussion of the idea of salvation by faith alone. He also gave a lesson about how we must go by Scripture alone as our final authority in matters of doctrine.

On these two points I think almost all genuine Christians would agree with his teaching.

Today he spoke on the subject of Covenant Theology. He said that those of the Reformed faith believe there are three basic covenants that pertain to our salvation: (1) The Covenant of Redemption, agreed to among the Trinity before the creation of the world; (2) The Covenant of Works, set forth in the Garden of Eden with Adam when Adam was forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; (3) The Covenant of Grace, whereby God announced and provided the means of grace whereby mankind can be saved. That is the best my limited short-term memory lets me recall about what Dr. Sproul taught in his message today on his Renewing Your Mind program.

Dr. Sproul in passing made mention of the Covenants with Noah, Abraham, and the Covenant at Sinai. He mentioned the New Covenant. All these are found in the Bible, like Dr. Sproul said. I noticed right away that he did not mention the Davidic Covenant.

Most of the very informative (at least to me) program was spent sketching out the three covenants important to Reformed Theology. Dr. Sproul said he does not like the term “Covenant Theology.”

Now I know what is wrong with Reformed Theology. It is based upon three imaginary covenants that are nowhere named as such in the Bible. These imaginary covenants are apparently necessitated by the exigencies of Reformed Theology. They form no part of Biblical Theology.

It is possible to formulate correct doctrine from the Bible by necessary inference using terms, names, or labels not found in the Bible itself. The doctrine of the Trinity would be an example of that. The doctrine of the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ might also fit this category. But the three covenants proposed by Reformed Theology are not formulated this way, to the best of my knowledge. They are the logical outcome of mistaken presuppositions.

I have not mentioned the Robinson Crusoe Test lately. In the classic work by Daniel Defoe, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, you will recall that Robinson Crusoe was stranded on a deserted island. He was there by himself, the only survivor of a shipwreck. He managed to salvage several seamen’s chests, and was able to plant a garden and tend it. Among the items Robinson retrieved from the chests were “three good Bibles.” In the story he spent some time reading the Bible for himself, using the three plain text Bibles. He was surprised to discover no direct evidence in the Bible as he read it for some of the controversial views promoted as Christian theology in his day.

My Robinson Crusoe Test is the principle that if Robinson Crusoe could not discover a doctrine by long and careful study of the Bible, such a doctrine may not be true.

I would apply this to the three underlying covenants of Reformed Theology: Robinson Crusoe in his day, and anyone else since then, would be very hard pressed to derive such doctrines from a study of the Bible itself, alone, and in its entirety.

In his next program, Dr. Sproul intends to teach about “Total Depravity.” I believe that is the “T” in the “TULIP” acronym which summarizes the so-called “Doctrines of Grace.” These doctrines are: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints. Each of these five doctrines is utterly mistaken, and not in agreement at all with what the Bible teaches.

1. Total Depravity

This false doctrine is better called “Total Inability.” It is false to the Scriptures because every person is able to seek and find God by reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament, for themselves. John tells us he wrote the Gospel of John so that whoever reads it may be saved (John 20:31). Some argue on the basis of Romans 3:11 that no person is able to seek God. That is taking this verse totally out of context. Romans 3:11 is a quotation from Psalm 14:2, and Psalm 14:1 speaks concerning a special kind of person, not everyone in general, namely, the fool who in his heart has said “There is no God.” God tells us we are to seek Him (Isaiah 55:6, 7). Does anyone have the gall to suggest that God would command or even encourage what He very well knew man could not do?

Some who believe in “Total Inability” defend this mistaken notion by appealing to Ephesians 2:1, which speaks of all of us before we were or before we become saved as being “dead in trespasses and sins.” They fail to properly apply the metaphor Paul is using. Paul is not speaking of physical death, but spiritual death. Spiritual death can be reversed when one hears and believes the Gospel (John 5:24). Physical death cannot be reversed in this life; it can only be reversed by the resurrection (John 5:28, 29).

Many people are led into thinking that they believe in “Total Depravity” because they know the Bible teaches that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and that our own righteousness is accounted by God as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). And these things are certainly true and Biblical. That is why I believe the expression “Total Depravity” is misleading, if not deceptive. Surely the Bible teaches we are all born with a sin nature (Psalm 51:5), and that no one (Proverbs 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20) except the Lord Jesus Christ has lived an absolutely sinless life (Hebrews 4:15). But these facts do not negate the fact that God has given all men the ability to seek Him, believe, and be saved.

2. Unconditional Election

This false doctrine asserts that God chose the destiny of every individual before they were born, and no one can change that decreed destiny, even if they want to. This is a doctrine sometimes known as the doctrine of Predestination. The Bible does speak of the doctrine of Predestination. But nowhere in the Bible is a person ever said to be predestined to Hell or Eternal Punishment. Read your Bible and see. The only predestination known to Scripture is the glorious fact that God has predestinated those who believe in Christ to be conformed to His character (Romans 8:29).

3. Limited Atonement

This false doctrine asserts that Jesus Christ died only for the Elect, not the whole world. The Scripture teaches to the direct contrary. God so loved the world (John 3:16). “The world” clearly means every human being, not a limited set of persons called the Elect. The lamb of God takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Paul wrote that Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). Paul asserts that if Jesus died for all, then all were dead in sin. The logic underlying the Greek grammar requires us to assert that all were dead. No true, informed, Bible believing Christian will deny that all are born dead in sin. But Christ died for all who are born dead in sin. Therefore, all are dead. If He did not die for all, then there must be some who are not included in the number of those who are born, for they must not have been born in sin, and for such Christ did not need to die. But that “set” of individuals is the “empty set.” Therefore, Christ of necessity died for all according to the Scriptures. Furthermore, John in 1 John 2:2 states that Christ did not die for our sins only, writing to believers, but for the sins of the whole world. This includes everyone. Therefore, the doctrine of the Limited Atonement is not compatible with the clear teaching of Scripture.

4. Irresistible Grace

This doctrine holds that all who are the elect and chosen of God will unfailingly respond to the call of the Holy Spirit and be saved. Those who hold this doctrine teach that there is a “General Call” issued to everyone, but to which no one ever responds; there is an “Effective Call” to which the Elect and only the Elect will unfailingly respond. This is not only an artificial but a false distinction not taught anywhere in the Bible. To suggest that the Holy Spirit ever would or even could issue a “General Call” to which He certainly knows no one can respond (according to this false doctrine) is tantamount to suggesting the Holy Spirit is deceitful, which is utter blasphemy.

Those who teach such mistaken doctrines fail to pay close attention to the underlying Greek grammar of the verses they cite in support of such doctrine. They fail to account, for example, for the subjunctive mood, which among other things marks a contingency in context which must be met to receive a benefit promised. This is especially the case in such passages as John 6:37, 44, 65 and similar passages. What appear in our often faulty available English translations to be unconditional promises or positive declarations are in Greek marked by the subjunctive mood which specifies a contingency which must be met, a contingency nearly always stated in the immediate context.

That the Holy Spirit can indeed be resisted is evident from Acts 7:51. For more evidence carefully consult the cross references provided there (including Isaiah 63:10; Luke 7:30; 19:27).

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Those who are the elect of God chosen by Him from eternity, chosen by God not on the basis of any foreseen action the individual may or may not do, will unfailingly persevere unto eternal life.

Some less-informed persons who suppose they believe in the “P” of “TULIP” equate this doctrine with what is popularly called “Once Saved, Always Saved.” This doctrine is even more false to the Scriptures. “Once Saved, Always Saved” is the teaching of Unconditional Eternal Security. This doctrine is false to the Scripture because (1) it denies the possibility of the apostasy of a believer; (2) it ignores the grammatical distinctions preserved in the Inspired Greek text of the New Testament.

To suggest that a believer cannot stop believing is nonsense, not only contrary to the many warnings addressed to believers of the dangers of apostasy (2 Peter 3:17; 1 Timothy 4:1), but directly opposed to the clear statement of our Lord Jesus Christ to the contrary in Luke 8:13.

Stop fooling yourself. This truth is most uncomfortable to those who have been taught otherwise by such teachers as Dr. R. C. Sproul and Dr. John MacArthur, and perhaps by your own pastor and Sunday school teachers. Come to an understanding of the irrefutable fact that the Bible teaches the absolute eternal security of the believer, not the unbeliever.

Many cite John 10:28 as proof of the doctrine of unconditional eternal security. To cite John 10:28 apart from John 10:27 is most deceitful or careless. Our Lord Jesus Christ promises eternal security to those who continue to hear His word and who continue to follow Him, and no one else!

Whether you think I am right or I am wrong, I invite you to leave a comment below.

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4 Responses to What is Reformed Theology?

  1. dave says:

    “My Robinson Crusoe Test is the principle that if Robinson Crusoe could not discover a doctrine by long and careful study of the Bible, such a doctrine may not be true.”

    definitely not a good test. the pharisees and the saducees were very well read in the scriptures. yet they did not recognize the messiah of which the prophets speak. nor did the saducees even believe in spirits. it was jesus who took a doctrine from exodus 3 “i am the god of abraham etc” and declared that god is god of the living and not the dead. how many times did the pharisees and saducees read that text and yet not get the same doctrine as jesus? just because you have read the bible over and over does not mean you have grasped all its contents. without revelation it won’t be understood anyway.

    covenant theology is rich and deep and very biblical. covenant theologians did not simply pull their theology out of thin air. i would suggest you read herman witsius “economy of the divine covenants” for a deep discussion of covenant theology.

  2. Jerry says:

    Dear Dave,

    Thank you for an excellent and challenging comment.

    Kindly notice that I worded my statement describing the “Robinson Crusoe Test” most carefully. Especially note my use of the word “may” when I said “My Robinson Crusoe Test is the principle that if Robinson Crusoe could not discover a doctrine by long and careful study of the Bible, such a doctrine may not be true.”

    Thus, there may possibly be some true doctrines taught in the Bible that any particular Bible reader might miss noticing, even upon repeated reading of the Bible.

    But I would affirm that what is essential to believe in order to be saved is clearly declared in the New Testament.

    Thus, by reading the New Testament alone, an individual can come to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. John tells us in his Gospel that this was the purpose for writing the Gospel of John, as directly stated at John 20:31.

    Herman Witsius is most careful in the beginning of his lengthy volumes, “The Economy of the Divine Covenants of God and Man,” to state that he has made every effort to be true to the Bible itself, which is most commendable.

    That the scribes and Pharisees read the Scriptures thoroughly and did not perceive their message is clearly stated by Christ at John 5:39. But it would be a serious error in logic to suppose that because the supposed Bible authorities of that day searched the Scriptures but failed to grasp their message should lead us to conclude that it is therefore wrong for us to search the Scriptures! It is an equally serious error in logic to suppose that an ordinary person cannot read the Bible for themselves and as a result come to a saving knowledge of Christ.

    Therefore, your criticism of my “Robinson Crusoe Test” is flawed.

    My “Robinson Crusoe Test” is a most valid test. Its purpose is to call attention to the facts that:

    (1) The Bible was written to be understood. In theology, this pertains to the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.

    (2) The Bible is a self-interpreting, self-correcting Book, in that if anyone will take the time and effort to read the Bible carefully, such a person will come to see that the Bible explains itself and that if any reader happens to misunderstand what is written in the Bible on some particular matter, continued study of the Bible will make it clear that there has been an error in understanding because a mistaken belief about what the Bible teaches will result in contradictions to what is elsewhere taught.

    (3) The Bible is self-correcting because a misunderstanding or even a false doctrine will be seen “not to fit” with what the rest of the Bible declares.

    (4) The proper view of the Bible (because it is taught in and by the Bible itself) emphasized by my Robinson Crusoe Test is the emphasis my test places upon the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible contains all we need to know about God and salvation. We do not need to follow some official “teaching authority” who will tell us what to believe the Bible says. Thus my repeated suggestion here that one should start out by reading a plain text Bible and learn as much as can be learned from the Bible text itself. This is precisely what Robinson Crusoe actually does in the great story by Daniel Defoe. Once this has been done, deeper study can and should be done using cross references and other objective non-denominational resources to delve further into Scripture teaching. Only after that should we venture into systems of theology, because every system has major flaws which can best be seen if one has a good grasp of what the Bible itself actually says upon many points first.

    Thank you for alerting me to the writings of Herman Witsius as a good background for understanding Covenant Theology. As good as he is, and he certainly appeals to Scripture frequently, he has developed a system that is imposed on Scripture rather than derived from Scripture by careful, painstaking, accurate exegesis. He certainly makes direct appeal to the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, but he fails to dig deep enough in a manner that would let the Bible correct his mistaken views. As far as I have read, he appears to certainly be within the pale of orthodoxy.

    He develops his system around two covenants: (1) The Covenant of Works, and (2) The Covenant of Grace. I see the Covenant of Works stated rather plainly at Leviticus 18:5. The Covenant of Grace is stated just as plainly at Genesis 15:6 as well as many New Testament passages which cite Genesis 15:6 and other texts which touch on the subject.

    Herman Witsius has missed the Bible emphasis upon the two most important central covenants God has directly established: the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant. Since these two great named covenants in the Bible involve its central themes and message, to not emphasize these is to not teach the Bible’s own balance of truth.

    Thank you for directing my attention to Herman Witsius. As the Lord enables, I hope to read further into his works.

  3. A. Believer says:

    Very well-written article, and I commend you for it.

    This Calvinism is truly an illogical, contradictory system of doctrine that has led many, many astray. It appeals to the base nature of man in that he is “helpless” and has no ability whatsoever to determine his eternal destiny, just a snowflake, as it were. It appeals to a lack of knowledge of the Scriptures even though it falsely claims to have a Biblical basis.

    What I find morbidly cringe-inducing is watching Calvinistic teachers contort themselves trying to make a case as to why they should have a job at all teaching this foolishness – after all, if eternal destiny has been predetermined and the individual has no capacity to affect the outcome, why bother teaching Calvinism or even preaching the gospel? The arguments that calvinists put forth trying to reconcile this fatal contradiction in their doctrine are a study circular reasoning, misdirection, and argument by verbosity. It would be amusing if the souls of men were not at stake, but because they are it is a horrible deception for which these false professors will indubitably be held accountable. Treachery…

  4. Jerry says:

    Thank you for your kind and supportive reply, A. Believer! On this subject I do not get many of those.

    I was brought up in a Calvinistic environment and served as an ordained elder in the Presbyterian church. My own personal study of the Bible has convinced me that Calvinism falls short of the Biblical accuracy required for it to be true.

    I appreciate the careful Bible expositions written by Calvinists as found in my Bible commentaries. So long as they are expounding the Scripture itself I often find them helpful. When they veer off into the intricacies of their mistaken theological system, I find them very unsatisfactory.

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