What Is Reformed Theology? (A Book Review, And A Brief Discussion By Me On Calvinism)

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One of my book goals of the year was to read more books that will help me grow spiritually - and I realized in recent months that I have kind of neglected theological books in my reading plan this year.  Time to catch up!  I saw "What Is Reformed Theology?" by R.C. Sproul up for review, and I decided to request it.  I have some friends who go to a Reformed Theology church, and I generally agree with them on doctrine, but I really didn't know what was meant by "reformed theology".  I was hoping to learn more from this book.

It did not disappoint! The first half of this book goes through points of sound biblical doctrine that I think all Christians agree on, but the part I liked is that it also included the church history that involved each point - including past heresies, and biblically why some of the great theologians came to the conclusions they did.  

A Few Negatives

This book got a little sticky here and there.  The section on the different views of communion, while educational for distinguishing between different denominations, made the whole subject pretty confusing to me.  

I feel like the author had a habit of lumping people together in groups, perhaps not always fairly. He used the term "dispensationalist" in a way that I have not heard before, and I don't agree with how he characterized this group.  I have generally agreed with the (traditional) dispensationalist view of how to interpret Scripture, etc, but Sproul seemed to be picking on dispensationalism and contrasted dispensationalism with covenant theology.  I have never heard these two terms put at odds with one another like this, and I don't think dispensationalism and covenant theology are mutually exclusive, as he seems to imply.  He even says later that dispensationalists think that a person can be completely carnal and still a Christian because a new nature isn't necessarily given (in direct contradiction to Scripture) - I have never heard that and totally disagree.  I may have to research more, but I grew up around people who described themselves as dispensationalists and I never heard anyone claim that, so I feel like he was being too rigid by lumping everyone together here.  I have always just viewed dispensationalism as a way of interpreting Scripture literally that takes into account historical time periods; not as a complete theological system.

I also felt in reading this book that the author focused too much on intellectual arguments and quotes from the reformers - which were excellent - but I would have appreciated a greater focus on the Scriptures that back up these points as well.  There was plenty of Scripture in this book, but I just wished he had connected some of the points he was making to Scripture a little more clearly.

A Brief Digression On Calvinism And Evangelism

The second part of the book focuses on the five points of Calvinism, which is where the distinguishing feature of Reformed Theology lies.  This is where a lot of you may stop reading, but let me just say, I think Calvinism gets a little bit of a bad rap in Christian culture today.  This book explains the five points of Calvinism very well, I thought.  The truth is, I tend to agree with Calvinism, because the underlying concepts are firmly rooted in Scripture.  Even the doctrine of election, the one everyone likes to argue about, is really about who enables us to believe.  Is it from our own virtue and intelligence, or is it because God has stirred our hearts and given us the ability, even to believe?  I think the latter is what is in line with Scripture.  But I still hesitate to call myself a Calvinist, not because I disagree with any of their points necessarily, but because I think Calvinism gets a little too hung up on the intellectual and neglects the practical.  There is one point that I've never heard a Calvinist explain to my satisfaction, and I wish this book would have addressed it more clearly too - and that is the matter of evangelism.  

This book addressed evangelism in a cursory way by referring to the "external call", and then focusing on the Spirit's "internal call" that leads someone to salvation, but I wish it would have focused a little more on what we, as Christians, are to do as far as evangelism goes.  In Scripture there is a clear call to evangelism, for Christians to tell others about the "good news" of Jesus and His sacrifice for our sins.  This is a pretty vital piece to the puzzle in how someone comes to know Jesus, and Scripture doesn't minimize it's importance. 

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”" Romans 10:14-15  

I feel like Calvinism in practical terms seems to minimize the importance of evangelism, when it is clearly something we are called to in Scripture.  The focus seems to always be on the point of election (which to be fair, is forced upon Calvinists because other Christians are always attacking them on this point), and I wish we could all just chill out a little and remember that God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.  His actions do not have to make perfect sense to our little human brains, but He is always righteous and good, and He owes explanations to no one. 

God told us what He needs us to know in His Word, which is truth, and it's just our job as Christians to believe His Word and do what He says, and pray and ask for clarity when something is confusing.  I think there are some on the anti-Calvinist side who would do well to get back to a focus on and understanding of Scripture instead of rejecting the (biblical) concept of election outright because it doesn't jive with their own sense of justice.  Our focus should ever be on Scripture because that is where the truth lies, and Christian culture today seems to be poorly lacking here.  And I think there are some on the Calvinist side who would do well to stop hitting others over the head intellectually with the election concept and instead point other Christians to Scripture and pray for the Holy Spirit to make His truth clear.  And we all need to recognize and remember that the concept of election has no bearing either way on the call to evangelism toward those who are still lost in their sin.  Scripture makes it very clear that we are to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.

So there you go, a little opinion on the Calvinism debate.  Back to the book.


This book addressed the "justice" concern of some who don't agree with Calvinism very well, better than any other piece I've read on the subject.  I like this quote:

"The concept of justice incorporates all that is just.  The concept of non-justice includes everything outside the concept of justice: injustice, which violates justice and is evil; and mercy, which does not violate justice and is not evil.  God gives his mercy (non-justice) to some and leaves the rest to His justice. No one is treated with injustice.  No one can charge that there is unrighteousness in God." pg. 187-188

I thought that explained really well why it is not correct to say God is not just when He chooses to save only some.  Like I said, this book overall explains Calvinism (and Reformed Theology) better than any other book I've read.  Whether you are a Calvinist, or have just been confused by any points of Calvinism in the past, I think this is a great resource if you really want to understand the beliefs of Calvinism clearly.

And as for Reformed Theology, the defining point touches on something I mentioned earlier - the distinction between unconditional election, and conditional election. Conditional election says that God calls those who He foresees will accept Him, and this is where that point gets sticky: who gives those people the ability to accept Jesus?  Is it something good in themselves that allows people to accept Jesus?  I'd have to say no - based on Scripture (many of the supporting Scriptures are shared in this book), it is the Holy Spirit who calls the believer and enables them to believe, and without the Holy Spirit working in us, none of us would believe.  We'd go on choosing our sin.  Unconditional election (which is what distinguishes Reformed Theology) says that it is nothing in ourselves that enables us to be saved, but it is by God's grace in working in us to enable us to seek Him and find Him.

In case you think that is a nit-picky distinction, you should be aware that this book is very intellectual and breaks each doctrine down to its elements, which I found very interesting, and very well done (though it perhaps falls into debating things that aren't as important here and there as well).  If you have ever wanted to know more about the basics of Christian doctrine and how we get those basics, and what the Reformation was all about, pick up this book for the first half.  If/when you want to learn more about where Calvinism gets it's five points, dive into the second half of this book.

I think I'll just wrap up this review with my favorite quote from this book:

"I cannot adequately explain why I came to faith in Christ, and some of my friends did not.  I can only look to the glory of God's grace toward me, a grace I did not deserve then and do not deserve now." pg. 177

That's the bottom line, isn't it?  For me, this book was a great reminder that it is not through any virtue of mine but only through His power and grace that I am saved, and that is a strikingly beautiful thing.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

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Gina babybluemom.com said...

Read this book years ago. I think your reviews are fair and accurate. Have you ever read anything bun Dr Michael Horton? He was one of my husbands professor and is one of his bosses. Some recommendations of books he wrote that I enjoyed were Ordinary, Core Christianity, In the Face of God, and Christless Christianity.

Rachel said...

I attended Calvin College, and over my years there certainly became very familiar with Reformed theology and the history of Calvinist theology--which I find very fascinating, I love studying church history and how different denominations come about. I'm a bit more Arminian in my personal beliefs, coming from more of a Methodist background--my husband is more on the Reformed side--discussing and disagreeing on the nitty-gritty of theological arguments is how we first bonded, but on a practical level we have the same faith in action--I just enjoy a good theological discussion once in a while! :)

Callie said...

I know what you mean! Though I don't really consider myself a Calvinist, I tend to lean that way, and my husband leans more to the Arminian side! It keeps us in balance. ;-) I figured out long ago I wasn't going to be able to fully understand the election issue on earth, and that's okay because God has it under control! I know that God is good and sovereign - no matter how it all works in the end, we know we are saved by His grace!

Callie said...

I have not read anything by him, but his name sounds familiar. What did you think of his books? I might look one up when I'm ready to tackle another theological book!

Cathy said...

This book sounds like it would be helpful in understanding more about reformed theology. I was raised Arminian but find myself leaning more towards Calvinism as I read and study more. But also see that these two camps have more in common then not. Randy Alcorn wrote a book called 'Hand in Hand' that deals with this subject. It's very good and an easy read. I think you'd like it.

Great post and I agree, its so good to know we are saved by His grace!

Unknown said...

This was an awesome article. My husband and I are reformed baptist. Yes, Evangelism is a key part of any christian's walk as it is a mandate of scripture. Are you familiar with Evangelism Explosion? This was created by D.James Kennedy years and years ago and many churches have used it in their outreach ministry. His church was Presbyterian, Reformed. We do not know who the elect are, so we witness to all. In C.H. Spurgeon's words, "Thank God for the Elect and Elect some more."

Natalie@She Builds Her Home said...

Oh Callie. I have always felt over the years like we were very similarly minded in theology, but this just seals the deal! Everything you said about about the election issue, Calvinism and evangelism is almost exactly where I'm at with it, and have been for years! I totally agree with your reply a few comments up, that it's something I'll never fully understand here. I have tried, believe me, and have just given it to God and look forward to the day when He can explain it to me face to face ;) We are reformed, but like you, don't really consider myself a Calvinist (probably because there are still some questions there for me...). I am going to have to add this to my reading list and see what I gain from it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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