What do we mean when we say we are a “Reformed” Church? Part 3 of 10 - By Grace Alone through Faith Alone

[Editor's Note: Read part 1 and part 2 of this series.]

We believe that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone! 

Salvation by Grace Alone

From start to finish, salvation is a gift of grace from God in Christ and in him alone. Every story we adopt to narrate our world puts us at the center as the protagonist and requires our efforts to bring about salvation through some idol. But Jesus is the actual protagonist of history who brings salvation to us as a gift of undeserved favor. Our efforts at self-salvation will fail, and only when we lay down our attempts to save ourselves through our efforts by submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can we be saved.

One important implication flowing from the doctrine of salvation by grace alone is the need for individual conversion. Conversion describes the application of grace upon an individual, whether gradually or in a dramatic and immediate way, such that they respond to the gospel in faith as they are born again into new life. Many believe themselves to be Christians because they were born to Christian parents or in a nation or community largely influenced by Christianity. But Christianity is not an ethnic label or set of communal values one is born into naturally. Each person must be born again by the Spirit and individually be converted through repentance and faith in Christ. Only by God’s grace does this occur. It is not a work of man.

Salvation through Faith Alone

Reformed Christians insist that salvation from sin to God comes in Christ alone. He is the only mediator between God and man. He is the only sacrifice for sin that can atone. But Reformed Christians also insist that this salvation is applied to individuals through faith and only through faith, not through works. In other words, the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection comes to sinners as a gracious gift of God by the Holy Spirit when he gives sinners faith in him and his good news. Salvation does not come to sinners through good works.

Salvation is a gift of grace received through faith, not acquired by participating in religious rituals (even good ones like baptism, communion, Bible study, or prayer). Believers receive salvation through resting in the promise and announcement of God that sin has been defeated by Jesus Christ.

Through faith in Christ, sinners are united to Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and justified before God. This means he declares us righteous before him on account of Christ. Through faith, we possess a righteousness that has come to us from outside of us and not because of us. Jesus’ death becomes our death because we were truly present through our union with him when God’s judgment was poured out on him. His resurrection becomes the guarantee of our future resurrection.

This faith through which sinners are saved should not be confused with intellectual assent or knowledge of a historical fact. The faith through which sinners receive the grace of God in Christ is a trust in, hope in, and love for God that transforms a person’s life such that good works are produced. But salvation itself comes through faith and not through works.

But why is salvation in Christ through faith alone? There are at least two reasons, both relating to the Reformed Christian’s understanding of sin.

Because Sin Has Pervasively Corrupted Us

Reformed Christians believe that there is no aspect of our humanity that has not been corrupted by sin. Each descendent of Adam’s race is corrupted in body, mind, will, spirit, and whatever else we possess as humans. Because of this pervasive depravity, there is no aspect of our being, of society, or of creation that we can draw upon or act out of that can merit God’s pleasure or achieve righteousness. Apart from God’s grace, sinners are cut off from God, unable to seek, know, or desire God or fellowship with him. Sinners need to be made new before they can have fellowship with God and enter his kingdom. Faith is a disposition of the total person which can only be exercised if God the Holy Spirit makes a person new, giving a person new birth. Creation itself must be remade into new creation for God to dwell with his people. This leads in to the second reason why salvation is through faith alone.

Because Sin Makes Us Completely Unable Not to Sin

Apart from new creation, sin and death will reign over this world. Despite all our attempts otherwise, apart from the new birth, sinners are not able not to sin. This doesn’t mean we cannot ever do anything good and that our every action is as evil as can be. Certainly, we sometimes love and seek to bless others. But everything we do, even the best things we do, are always tainted by sin in some way. Nothing meets the righteous requirements God’s character and design for creation require. Our motives are mixed. We take pride in our good works. We lack wisdom and act immaturely.

So sinners are pervasively corrupt, and we are not able not to sin. Therefore, no work of man can ever be the instrument through which salvation in Christ can be received or the foundation upon which salvation rests. Salvation is a gift of grace from beginning to end, and it is received through faith in Jesus Christ and only through faith. The Holy Spirit makes us new creations and gives us faith in Jesus Christ according to the plan of God the Father.

Reformed Christians believe that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. This is the fundamental matter, the central doctrine, of the Christian faith.

[Editor's Note: Read part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]

What do we mean when we say we are a “Reformed” Church? Part 2 of 10 - Salvation in Christ Alone

[Editor's Note: Read part 1 of this series.]

We believe that salvation from sin to God is in Christ alone!

The Cross of Christ

Reformed Christians confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He stands at the center of all things, and it is only through his mediatorial and substitutionary work on the cross and the victory of his resurrection that sinners are saved. Jesus stands between God and mankind, representing God to man and man to God, bearing God’s judgment and presenting us innocent and righteous to God. He gave his life as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners by bearing the penalty for their sin, God’s wrath in the judgment of death. Only through his substitutionary work of atonement can sinners be saved.

The Story of the World

This good news sits at the climax of God’s plan for the world. The plotline of this plan is marked by four chapters: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Everyone, religious or irreligious, narrates the history of the world and their own life in some way, but Christians receive the story of the world from God through His word. God’s story becomes our story. The Triune God is king over all created all things, and he made mankind as his image bearers to live in his kingdom in covenant fellowship with him.  Mankind rebelled, broke covenant, and fell from innocence before God in an attempt to establish our own kingdoms. God redeemed sinners, sending his Son to be king and to overthrow the kingdoms of this world by dying for sin and rising again in victory to bring forgiveness. When the Son, Jesus Christ, comes again to judge the living and the dead, he will bring a new creation as the consummation of God’s redemption. Christians repent of the false stories we have adopted to narrate and shape our lives, and we trust in God’s story and his saving work in Jesus Christ.

There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. This storyline (creation, fall, redemption, consummation) provides the foundation from which Reformed theology draws its doctrines and its understanding of the gospel.

The gospel is not the same as the storyline of Scripture. It isn’t everything God has done. The gospel is the good news concerning Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin and the bringing of new creation. The gospel is the climax of God’s dramatic story of the world.

Christ the Only Savior

While it might seem obvious to Christians that Jesus is the savior, the Reformed tradition has been especially aware of our tendency as sinners to replace Jesus as savior or to incorporate other powers, people, or things into the saving work of Christ. Reformed Christians insist that we must not add to or take away from Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Therefore, we reject any false savior.

We maintain that we cannot save ourselves and that Christ alone has the power to save. We cannot merit, earn, or secure our salvation through our efforts and good deeds. We cannot achieve salvation through self-denial, discipline, or abstaining from bodily pleasure. We cannot reason our way to salvation or educate ourselves to enlightenment.

We maintain that no other person, whether a Christian leader, saint, or martyr, can achieve our salvation but that Christ alone redeems us from sin. We naturally drift from trusting in Christ alone for salvation to putting our confidence in pastors or priests who lead us and pray for us. We naturally seek some other power, apart from the Holy Spirit given by Christ, to intervene on our own behalf so that we are saved. Some even pray to Apostles, to Mary the mother of Jesus, and to other saints. But no one has the power to forgive sin or help us grow in Christ-likeness except God.

We maintain that no created thing can save us. We naturally trust in all sorts of created things (money, power, status, comfort, security, love,  approval, etc.) to save us from our problems. But our ultimate problem is our sinful rebellion against God, and only Jesus can take away our sin.

Jesus Christ is the only savior, and we must flee from accepting any powerless rivals. So Reformed Christians believe that salvation is in Christ alone.

[Editor's Note: Read part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9, and part 10 of this series.]