In the lobby of a church we were visiting hung a poster on the bulletin board advertising R.C. Sproul’s series, What Is Reformed Theology? Under the question, the poster listed the “TULIP” acronym and the “5 Solas” of the Reformation—that was all. As I looked at that poster, I thought that I’d better break the news to my very dispensationalist pastor friends and professors in whose theology classes Loraine Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination was required reading. I was taught each point of the TULIP acronym without hesitation, save a little extra discussion on “Limited Atonement.” Even though I don’t remember the 5 Solas being a major center piece of my college and seminary days, the sufficiency of Scripture certainly was. I was also taught that salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and God’s purpose for ordaining all things was for His own glory. So somewhere along the line, my dispensationalist pastors, professors, and I had all made a transition to Reformed theology, without even knowing it!
Now I don’t think that many very devout classical dispensationalists or reformed theologians would take too kindly to a bunch of dispensationalists being called “reformed.” So is there really more to being reformed than affirming the Doctrines of Grace (a.k.a. TULIP or “Calvinism”) and the 5 Solas? Providentially, R.C. Sproul’s book, What is Reformed Theology? is published electronically for an easy download and a quick read. Looking at the table of contents, it was pretty clear that Sproul’s synopsis of Reformed theology was indeed simply the 5 Solas and TULIP. . .with one little chapter sandwiched in between.
Chapter five is innocently titled, “Nicknamed Covenant Theology.” This chapter, summarized very quickly, was a looooong description of the structure of the ancient “Suzerain-Vassal Treaty” (which I also learned from dispensationalists) and a very short section on how the covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace (somewhat) fit the same structure. Of course, the latter section was very short on Scripture and very long on quotes from the Westminster Confession. By the way, in the treaty structure, Sproul gave an excellent analysis of the Abrahamic Covenant and its similar structure. I was reminded of a discussion I had with someone about Covenant Theology. I made the statement that I just don’t see the covenants of Covenant Theology clearly articulated in Scripture. He then started naming the Mosaic covenant, Abrahamic covenant, Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant. My apologies to the Covenant Theologians, but you don’t get to claim exclusive rights to those covenants. I was taught those by dispensationalists as well! No, the “covenants” of Covenant Theology are Redemption, Works, and Grace (alone).
I ask again, “Is there really more to being reformed than affirming the Doctrines of Grace and the 5 Solas?” Are these the only two legs of the chair upon which Reformed theologians rest? This is a particularly important question in light of the recent swell in the ranks of “reformed” pastors and churches. As I have testified, the Doctrines of Grace and the Solas are being taught in dispensational schools and churches. There must be something else that makes one truly Reformed.
Sproul in the fifth chapter reveals the other two legs of the Reformed chair which are the true difference between Dispensationalism and Reformed Theology: Covenant Theology and Confessionalism. These also happen to be the major weaknesses of Reformed Theology—Covenant Theology because it is not clearly articulated in Scripture, and Confessionalism because it (unintentionally) overshadows Scripture. Sproul highlights these weaknesses when he fails to articulate Covenant Theology from Scripture but rather turns to the Westminster Confession. As well crafted as the confessions are, they are not Scripture. Some of us can sit solidly on the Doctrines of Grace and the 5 Solas but feel the shakiness of Covenant Theology and Confessionalism and jump off the chair completely.
Let me clarify my own position because I know this may be sounding like a defense of Dispensationalism; it is not! Systems of theology are man’s attempt to define and categorize the purposes and actions of an infinite, eternal God and, as such, are subject to error. Turning any system of theology into a system of interpretation exacerbates the error and causes extra-biblical doctrines and practices. Both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology contain examples of these kinds of errors, particularly in the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology. Systematic Theology should be built upon solid Biblical theology and an understanding of progressive revelation and never allowed to become a system of interpretation.
Am I Reformed? I am thrilled that I am finding more and more Christians who will openly embrace the sovereignty of God in election, but I am not ready to wear the Reformed label just because I believe in the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of Scripture. Nor do I wear the Dispensationalist label, even though I went to dispensational schools. When I buy a pair of jeans, I wear them because they fit well and perform the function that I need. I don’t go out and buy the matching T-shirt to provide advertising for the jeans company. In the same way, as Scripture dictates, I will be known to wear the reformed jeans or the dispensationalist jeans. . .and a T-shirt with a cross on it because Christ is the one I want to advertise!
Update: This article was written in November 2013. Since then I have grown in my understanding of Reformed Theology and offer this update on my understanding as of September 2017. Instead of editing the above article, I decided to leave it intact. I hope this gives the reader a sense of my growth and development in this area of theology.
I stated in the article that “I am not ready to wear the reformed label.” That is no longer the case. I can now comfortably call myself reformed. This is mainly due to the fact that I have found reformed groups with whom I can whole-heartedly associate. At the time this article was originally written, I did not have these associations.
The process of raising support for missions causes one to examine his own associations. I knew from eight years in dispensational schools that I was not a dispensationalist.
I also knew that I did not agree with Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology is based on the belief in a system of covenants that are nowhere stated in Scripture. This results in misunderstanding the biblical covenants, especially the Mosaic Covenant (Old) and the New Covenant, by mashing them together under one “Covenant of Grace.” Jeremiah 31:32, Galatians 4:31-32, and Hebrews 8:13 are very clear that the New Covenant is distinct from the Mosaic Covenant. With the institution of the New Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant becomes obsolete and passes away. This statement deserves a fuller examination which I hope to do in a later article.
During our travels across the U.S. in 2012-2014, I found fellowship and association in two groups. First, I have found that I am in close agreement with Reformed Baptists. The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is the best historic articulation of Scriptural doctrine apart from the Bible itself. I gladly affirm the SLBC 1689 with a few exceptions, which many Reformed Baptists also except in their adoption of the confession. I did not grow up in Reformed Baptist churches and therefore do not have close associations with any particular Reformed Baptist church. I do appreciate their doctrinal position and their practices in worship. A group of Reformed Baptists associated with the Westminster Seminary California Reformed Baptist Institute have done some great research on the distinctiveness of Baptist covenant theology in the writings of 17th century theologians such as John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe. These theologians held a different view of the relationship between the Mosaic and New Covenants. This distinction led to the writing of the SLBC 1689 to distinguish them from the Westminster Confession. More information on this research can be found on the website: 1689Federalism.com.
A second association I found was in a group called Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (FIRE). I can identify whole-heartedly with this group. It is made of churches and individuals, much like me, who are reformed or reforming and baptistic. Members come from a variety of theological backgrounds including dispensationalism, covenant theology, New Covenant theology, etc. The motto of the group is a good place to be in our theological development: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”