The March 23, 2009 special edition of TIME Magazine listed the 10 biggest ideas today. According TIME, the third biggest idea impacting your world right now is a resurgence of Calvinism. That “Calvinism” (Reformed Theology) was anywhere near their radar is amazing. Even more amazing is the other nine “ideas” are really only cultural and economic trends: jobs (rather than homes) are the new asset, or, increased public works.
Calvinism is the only idea on TIME’s list that is a comprehensive system for understanding the world and everything in it.
Calvinism is not a strange new cult. It is so named after John Calvin (1509-1564), who, next to Martin Luther, was the preeminent Protestant Reformer. When Calvin took up his carrier as a Reformer, the Reformed theology was mostly formed. His fame is not for spinning wild new ideas, but for being in his day the most articulate defender of the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformers stood on the authority of the Bible alone, the Word of God. They were also careful students of Church history, but they understood that antiquity, piety and church authority are not sufficient authorities on which to base church doctrine. Ultimately everything must answer to the Word of God.
Every pious person knew that the Christian church in the 16th century needed reforming. But Luther and Calvin insisted that at its heart this reformation must be doctrinal rather than ethical. The corrupt practices, they argued, are merely symptoms of corrupt doctrine.
But what makes Calvinism such a powerful idea for our time? I think that Christian churches in America are closer to the church of the medieval ages than at any point since the Reformation. We are living now in an age where American Evangelicals have forgotten, for the most part, what it means to be Evangelical. The promise of success and influence has seduced us. We have become so fixated on being “relevant” that we have become irrelevant. Our salt has lost is savor.
The Reformers did not focus on misty or abstract points of theology. They focused on this one question: how is a sinner justified before a holy God.
The medieval church believed that the merits of Christ are deposited in the church and dispensed piecemeal through its ordinances. The sinner must to his best and let the church take care of the rest. The “grace” they receive from the church makes the sinner more gracious. One is finally justified before God only when they become fully just – without sin. But what is it to try ones level best? And what person can claim to be without sin. Therefore the Church acknowledged that most Christians would pay for their sins in the fires of purgatory.
John Calvin wrote to Cardinal Sadoleto and expressed to him the Reformed doctrine of how the sinner is justified before God.
“First, we bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to city his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with Him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.”
The “righteousness of faith” is not whereby we are ourselves righteous, but whereby we receive the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to our account, as if we have never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if we have perfectly kept God’s law as Christ himself. Reformed churches therefore understand the importance of dividing Law from Gospel. We declare the law in all its sternness and the Gospel in all its sweetness and maintain, “We are justified by faith apart from works of Law” (Rom 3:28). This is good news to those who are hurting and broken, and whose consciences are loaded with guilt. The relevance of this message does not decrease with age.
The Reformation stood on the authority of Scripture alone, and maintained that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, unto the glory of God alone. Some of the historic Reformed denominations unfortunately regard their heritage as a museum artifact, while other independent churches are discovering the vitality of Reformation teaching for the first time. There are a number of denominations, however, that remain faithful to Calvin’s articulation of Biblical teaching. One such denomination is the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), which has churches all over the United States.
I am proud to serve at Redeemer Church (OPC) in Santa Maria. We are a Reformed church, but we are also ecumenical in the sense that we are not exclusive. We are a place where you are free to learn and grow. You do not need to be a hardheaded Calvinist to worship with us, and to be a member you need only to be Christian. Our commitment to you is that the Word of God will always be faithfully taught, and the Gospel of free grace will be ever present in our teaching. If you are in the area I encourage you to stop by and discover the difference at Redeemer.