The Reformed Tradition
From Guilt to Grace to Gratitude
I adopted the Reformed tradition and wasn’t raised as a “child of the covenant,” nor baptized as an infant, and never heard of the Heidelberg Catechism as a young person in church. It became my choice, or as some Reformed theologians might say, it chose me.
American, white evangelicalism was the birthplace of my journey to faithfully follow Jesus. It started young, not at the baptismal font, but in the kitchen of our home, through a conversation with my mother when I was 4½ years old. As I asked questions about God and heaven, my attentive mother replied by explaining the way of salvation. I could ask Jesus to come into my heart. Did I want to do that?
We had an appointment to see our dentist, Dr. Cartright. I asked my mother if I could accept Jesus after going to the dentist. She hesitated and explained that Jesus could come again while I was having my teeth examined. So, I didn’t delay and said a prayer accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.
This evangelical subculture was my home, shaping my theology and worldview. My grandfather was a friend of Billy Graham. The bulletin of the church where I was raised had the words “Evangelical, Independent, and Nondenominational” prominently printed on its cover.
Young Life, an evangelical parachurch outreach to high school students, provided an avenue that started to expand my horizons of faith. It was joyful, relational, and relevant. To my parents’ chagrin, my Young Life leader suggested I attend Hope College in Holland, Michigan, rather than Wheaton College. Doing so was probably the only major act of rebellion in my adolescence.
In the classrooms and chapel of Hope, a college of the Reformed Church in America, I first learned and experienced some of the distinctives of the Reformed tradition. It was more absorption, and certainly not indoctrination. Two things, upon reflection, stand out. 1) Grace comes solely as God’s initiative, as pure gift. Faith is never an achievement or personal accomplishment. 2) Following Jesus can’t remain individualized. It’s more than “Jesus and me.” It involves God and the world. That means all aspects of life and culture—science, politics, economics, art, history—are understood wholistically through the framework of faith and the sovereignty of God. This is often termed a Reformed “world and life view.”
It took years more in my journey before being ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America. But those perspectives about grace, God, and the world, which I believe are central to the Reformed tradition, have remained with me to this day as I continue to try to faithfully follow Jesus.
Beyond the core of the Reformation–grace alone, the Word alone, and faith alone–are further distinctives to being Reformed. These can also become problematic at times, often generating stereotypes about Reformed Christians.
1. The Reformed Tradition is Confessional
Relying on the Word requires clarity about what it means. Confessions do so, written relevant to historical contexts but carrying enduring truths. These words matter, formulating beliefs which become the basis for belonging. Most are from the 16th and 17th centuries. But a striking recent example is the Belhar Confession, written in response to apartheid in South Africa, but with deep truths about reconciliation, justice, and unity which have gained a wider receptivity in parts of the Reformed world.
Yet there are dangers. Focusing on defining faith by correct propositions can imprison belief in rationalism and mistake “correct” thoughts for faithful practice. Faith then becomes detached from the whole person, and spiritual experience is suspect, subjugated to right thinking. In the recent years of my journey, I’ve placed more stress on practices, such as pilgrimage, which were largely rejected by the Reformers. My time on the Camino de Santiago, and other paths unfolding from my contemplative journey, have persuaded me that while what we think and confess carries importance, in the end we walk our way into faith.
2. The Reformed Tradition is Covenantal
When an infant is baptized in a Reformed (or other) congregation, theological critics will complain that he or she has no choice in the matter. But that is precisely the point. Christian faith is carried communally; it’s personal but not individualistic. A Christian community’s covenantal promises can be a vehicle for the initiative of God’s grace. As a counterpoint to the hyper-individualism of modern Western culture, this seems both theologically mature and sociologically honest. So, I don’t regard my prayer in the kitchen as an autonomous, individual act of free will, but as part of a mysterious movement of grace transmitted imperfectly but certainly through covenantal relationships of love. Believing and belonging are intertwined, and not always sequential.
But covenant can breed exclusivity and corporate self-righteousness. It was a temptation faced both by the people of Israel, and by those in Reformed communities through history, to this day. My theological response is that the framework of God’s covenantal grace keeps expanding, relentlessly and inclusively, as seen in Jesus. God’s covenant is extended through God’s unconditional initiative, but its boundaries are permeable, fluid, and unexpected. It’s a centered set, not a bounded set.
3. The Reformed Tradition proclaims that the world belongs to God
The evangelical culture which shaped my early years contended that we were saved from the world, both eternally and through daily measures to resist its contaminating influences. The Reformed tradition stresses that all in the world is intended to be redeemed and brought under God’s sovereignty. In its best expressions, this overcomes the dualism between body and soul, nature and grace, secular and sacred. It’s an invitation to creative engagement between faith and culture, art, politics, science, economics, etc.
Yet, at times the results of Reformed interaction with culture have been disastrous. I recall visiting the Elmina slave castle on coast of Ghana. On the main floor I entered the chapel built by Dutch Reformed Christians engaged in this trade, where they worshipped and sang Psalms, extolling God’s blessings. On the floor directly below, those captured where ruthlessly held in prison dungeons, awaiting transfer to slave ships. Dualism reigned supreme. Throughout history, various Reformed communities have justified slavery, apartheid, white patriarchy, and more. In the current rhetoric of white nationalism, one can hear echoes of similar racist, religious sentiments. Applying faith to all of life must come with a ruthless critique of how we are prone to use faith to justify our preexisting conditions of power and privilege with their oppressive effects.
4. The Reformed Tradition takes sin very seriously
“Total depravity” is often the starting point for classic Reformed theology. Even the Heidelberg Catechism, frequently praised for its more winsome spirit, answers Question Five by stating, “by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.” One can be grateful that the Reformed tradition refuses to see the world through naïve, superficial lens, and confronts the empirical evidence of its harsh realities. Yet, it seems ironic that a thoroughly negative anthropology should be cited as a theological virtue.
In fact, the term “total depravity” appears nowhere in any of the classic Reformed confessions, although its sentiments are found. But both Reformed theology and practice often get stuck in this rut. Guilt weighs heavily and persistently. At its best, the Reformed journey is described as a movement from guilt to grace to gratitude. It’s an inviting pathway. The challenge, however, is that when you begin in so deep a hole, it can take a lifetime to comprehend grace and live out of gratitude, and sometimes that’s not enough. When I sit with my two grandchildren on my lap, my Reformed theology gets undone. The last thing in the world I want them to hear about is total depravity. Rather, I want them to begin knowing how much they are loved, and that in their inner being, they carry the image of God.
5. The Reformed Tradition is ecumenical
It’s not surprising that many global leaders of the modern ecumenical movement, like W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft (the first WCC general secretary), Eugene Carson Blake, Henrick Kraemer, Lesslie Newbigin, and several others came from the Reformed tradition. John Calvin argued that no church was perfect, and in 1560 he proposed “a free and universal council to put an end to the divisions of Christendom.” He would even “cross ten seas….in order to unite widely severed Churches.” Believing that no church can be perfectly pure serves as a vulnerable and open starting point for ecumenism.
Regrettably, for more than four centuries of the Reformed tradition’s history, Calvin’s passion for church unity has been spurned. Reformed and Presbyterian churches are notorious for continual successions and divisions from one another, usually over finer points of doctrine or else various ethical issues (membership in the Freemasons, divorce, same gender relationships, etc.) which can hardly be regarded as foundational to faith in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Reformed ecclesiology provides a fruitful opening for addressing the shameful, sinful reality of over 45,000 separate denominations in today’s world.
These major points summarize how much of the global Reformed community, numbering about 80 million Christians, seek to faithfully follow Jesus. Of course, there is wide variety and difference. In the end, this tradition insists that we are held by God’s uncontrollable grace, and that God invites us as disciples of Christ to serve and act out of gratitude for the sake of a world so loved by God.