What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 7 of 10 - The Law of God

[Editor's Note: Read part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5, and part 6 of this series.]

We believe that God’s commands are good and play an important role in the Christian life and in society even though they have no power to save us or help us overcome our sinful natures!

Resting on the foundation of covenant theology, Reformed Christians have a robust understanding of the goodness and the importance of God’s law that avoids the errors of legalism and antinomianism. The Reformed understanding of the law provides us with resources to pursue justice and morality in the public square, with a starting point for conversation with non-believers about our need for salvation, and with guidance in the Christian life.

Everyone Has a Conscience

Even though sin has pervasively impacted the world and each individual person, God has not left us without some understanding of our obligations to him and to one another. Each person made in the image of God possesses a conscience. We might describe a conscience as an intuition of our creation covenant obligations to love God and others. Reformed Christians are not surprised by the fact that people in every culture throughout the world and throughout history share basic moral tenants. However, because of sin, we suppress the truth, lie to ourselves, and pervert the law written on our hearts. This is why people disagree about moral issues. But even though we might disagree about the exact moral obligations on this or that issue, and even though some moral issues will carry more weight in certain contexts and eras, there exists a basic moral compass in all of us. This is part of what it means to bear the image of God and to be created in his likeness.

The Ten Commandments

The Reformed understanding of the Law of God interprets the Bible to teach that our consciences are stamped by God’s eternal Law. Therefore, when God made a covenant with Israel through Moses and summarized his Law to them in the Ten Commandments, he was making public what mankind already knew by nature but suppressed in sin. In other words, the Ten Commandments outline the basic moral obligations God has created all mankind to obey. Our consciences can be ignored, malformed, and hardened, but when God’s commandments clearly set forth how we must live as those made in his image, we cannot distort or pervert what we already knew to be true. This suggests that the Ten Commandments do not merely belong to the Old Covenant but set forth the eternal moral law of God.

Three Uses of the Law

The Law of God is a good thing. Scripture teaches quite clearly that the Law is good, holy, and perfect (Romans 7:12). However, as sinners, we naturally use the Law in sinful ways. The Law is not an instrument of salvation. It cannot rescue us from sin. We cannot obey it in order to please God, merit his favor, or transform our corrupted selves. Salvation is by grace alone and not through works of the Law.

But the Law is useful when rightly appropriated. Reformed Christians speak of three valid uses of the Law. First, the Law can act as a mirror. It shows us who we are. It exposes us as sinners and even provokes us to sin. This awareness of sin that comes through the Law can drive us to seek salvation in Christ alone.

Second, the Law serves as a guide to justice for civil authorities and the general restraint of evil in the world. Since the Law of God resonates with our consciences, the Law promotes a culture where people conform outwardly to justice. In other words, the Law shows us what is just, and therefore, we can be guided to make good laws that will promote public justice even if people pursue doing the right thing for sinful reasons.

Third, for those who have trusted in Jesus Christ and received his grace through the work of the Spirit, the Law can guide faithfulness. The Law cannot transform sinful people, whether a non-Christian or a Christian. But it can guide Christians being transformed by the Spirit into faithful living. It can stir Christians to obey God out of joy and gratitude since we have been set free from the curse of the Law and the threat of a death sentence.

When the Law is understood properly, Christians avoid legalism (seeking salvation or transformation through the Law) and antinomianism (throwing out God’s commands altogether as having no place in society or the Christian life).

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

What do we mean when we say we are a "Reformed" Church? Part 4 of 10 - Scripture Alone

[Editor's Note: Read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.]

We believe that Scripture alone may bind the consciences of men because it is the ultimate authority from which we know of God and his salvation!

How do we know Jesus Christ and his good news?

Reformed Christians believe that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. We know this to be true because it is the clear message of Holy Scripture. Man’s wisdom did not and cannot conceive of the foolishness of the cross apart from God’s revelation in Christ recorded in the words of Scripture. Therefore, Reformed Christians are fundamentally committed to submitting to whatever is taught in the Scriptures. Whatever is affirmed and taught, we must affirm and believe. Whatever is commanded, we must obey. The Scriptures must narrate our lives and provide the lens through which we interpret our experience. No Christian or church should create commands, rules, or laws for others unless Scripture requires such things, because, in matters where Scripture does not lay down a command or teaching, Christians have liberty to exercise wisdom and love in their various contexts.

There are several important implications of this doctrine: the sufficiency  of Scripture, the authority of Scripture, and the clarity of Scripture.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Reformed Christians believe that the Scriptures contain all that is needed for salvation and godly living. In other words, we do not need God to give us further revelations in order to know how to be saved or to live wisely and righteously. We have everything we need from God set down in writing in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. We need not pursue direct speech to us from God. We don’t have to wonder if there is some word of God out there yet to be discovered. The Scriptures are sufficient for us to know God in Christ, to be saved from sin, and to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Authority of Scripture and The Role of Tradition

This does not mean, however, that we ought to only read the Bible and nothing else. It is a huge mistake to think that, because the Scriptures are sufficient for salvation and godliness, the writings of Christians throughout the history of the Church are not needed or are dangerous. Reformed Christians are not “Bible only” people or “no creed but the Bible” people. The creeds, theology books, and Scripture commentaries collected over the centuries are hugely important for the Church, not because Scripture isn’t enough, but precisely because we should seek every aid in properly understanding and applying the Scriptures. Scripture alone carries with it God’s authority. Because only the Bible is God’s word, no church council, creed, theologian, or pastor may command others to believe and obey unless they rightly apply Scripture itself.

So tradition is important, not because it can command us, but because it can help us to see the Scriptures rightly. When it is clear that traditions of the church do not faithfully reflect biblical teaching, Scripture trumps tradition. But we must be careful not to assume that our reading of Scripture, uninformed by what Christians have said for ages, is automatically the right one. Many things in Scripture are not immediately clear.

The Clarity of Scripture

While the meaning of many parts of Scripture may not be immediately obvious to us, Reformed Christians believe that the basic message of Scripture, the good news of Jesus Christ, is clear. We are not so dependent upon the tradition that we cannot know what God’s Word teaches unless we first hear it from those before us. We would be foolish to ignore them, but salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone is so clear that we should encourage Christians to read the Scriptures and not limit their exposure to the Bible to times when others explain it to them or read it for them. There are many complicated and difficult passages in the Bible, but this should not distract us from the clear message of the Bible, that God sent His Son into the world to die for sin, that he was buried, and that he was raised into new life to bring forgiveness and new creation.

Reformed Christians believe that God has given us all we need in the Holy Scriptures to be saved and to live faithfully before him. Man’s wisdom must never be imposed upon the consciences of others because our invented laws, practices, or principles of “wisdom” always fail and serve to burden people and hinder them from the grace of the gospel. The church’s tradition is important and a helpful guide, but it too stands under the authority of Scripture. This is why Reformed Christians often describe themselves as “Reformed and always reforming.” 

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