This article is about being Reformed. The author focuses on Reformed doctrineReformed worship and Reformed church government. Calvinism is also discussed, as well as the relation between church and world.

Source: Witness, 2008. 7 pages.

What Is It to Be Reformed?

Among the collected conversations with the 19th Century Free Church minister and professor, John "Rabbi" Duncan, entitled Colloquia Peripatetica we find his ‘Creed within the Creed’. Duncan is reported to have said:

I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.

One of those hearing Dr Duncan wondered if this was to be understood as being like circles within each other, the first the widest and best, the last the smallest and least important.

‘I like better to think of them,’ said Rabbi Duncan ‘as towers rising one above the other, though narrowing as they rise. The first is the broadest, and is the foundation laid by Christ; but we are to build on that foundation, and, as we ascend, our outlook widens.’

In other words, it is a matter of position and perspective. It is a matter of rising to an enhanced vantage point in Christian things. When you are standing at the foot of the Cuillin Hills in the Isle of Skye you cannot but be impressed by their grandeur. They narrow as you climb up them. But what a wonderful view there is from the top!

Duncan’s ‘Creed’ is a good picture of the Reformed Faith, though it is hardly in line with the tenor of the times. Christianity has tended to be reduced to a lowest common denominator. Yet for those committed to the full-orbed Reformed faith it is a helpful perspective. We are part of the family of Protestant Reformation churches. We rightly rejoice in this spiritual heritage. But it is a fair question: What is it to be Reformed? Many would claim to be Reformed, especially the Presbyterian family of churches, though the word can be used all too loosely. There is good reason, then, to be clear on our own position, not least in the current climate of theological and ecclesiastical confusion. In maintaining our position we ought not simply to be concerned to justify our separate existence, or seem to rejoice in the fragmentation of the church. However, there is a need to be clear on what it is to be Reformed, as we claim to be. Fathers and brethren, and Christian friends, my address today is this: ‘What is it to be Reformed?’ The intention is both to affirm and to challenge. We address this question by looking, firstly, at Our Reformed Position, and secondly at Our Present Challenge.

Our Reformed Position🔗

Historically we claim continuity with the Church of the Reformation of the 16th Century. The Disruption Fathers in the 1840s made clear that they were no sect, but maintained continuity with the Reformation Church of Scotland, albeit free from the status and benefits of the Establishment. So, we claim to be Reformed in terms of this historical continuity, whatever anyone else may claim about us or about themselves. It goes without saying that any such continuity must be related to a firm biblical and Apostolic basis. A Reformed position will be based squarely on the ‘foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone’ (Ephesians 2:20). In outlining our position we consider three things:

Being Reformed in Doctrine🔗

We might summarise our doctrinal position in this way: principally the Bible, subordinately the Westminster standards. But what does this involve? It will involve in the first place a clear acceptance of biblical inspiration and inerrancy – of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as ‘the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy [God]’. A high view of Scripture is crucial to a truly Reformed position. We are also Trinitarian, holding that the God revealed in the Bible is One God in three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, distinct but indivisible. We believe in the Father as Creator and sustainer of all – the Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man, as Saviour and Head over Church and Nation – and the Holy Spirit as the One who regenerates and sanctifies.

In terms of our doctrine, we hold to Calvinism. Calvinism historically relates to the teaching of John Calvin (1509-1564), considered as a rediscovery of the essence of biblical faith. We rejoice in holding to what are called the doctrines of grace. These are summed up by the acronym T-U-L-I-P, which arose from the Synod of Dordt (1618-19). Let me summarise it briefly:

  • T stands for ‘Total Depravity.' All men everywhere are totally depraved; not that they are as sinful as they possibly can be, but that they are sinful in every aspect of their nature: fallen in Adam and sinners by nature (Genesis 6:5; Romans 3:23).

  • U stands for ‘Unconditional Election.' The Lord according to His own perfect and sovereign will chose from among the mass of mankind who should be saved (Ephesians 1:4-5), without reference to their works (Ephesians 2:8-10).

  • L stands for ‘Limited Atonement.' The atonement of Christ had reference to the salvation of those chosen by God to be saved; His death was designed to secure the salvation of the elect (John 10:14-15).

  • I stands for ‘Irresistible Grace.' The sinner is drawn in time through the grace of God. The Spirit regenerates and gives new life to the sinner. This is the divine initiative, but the sinner must come to repent and believe in Christ (John 6:44-45).

  • P stands for ‘Perseverance of the Saints.’ The elect will finally persevere in faith. The golden chain from election to glorification will not be broken (Romans 8:29-30). At the same time the saints are to be diligent to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).

So, we hold to the glorious truth of the sovereignty of the triune God over all things. This does not of course deny the responsibility of man. After all, the Lord has given mankind the gospel (John 3:16). And there is no insincerity in His offers of salvation to the sinner. Those who refuse Him do so of their own volition. The free offer of salvation goes out as a genuine and sincere plea, which the sinner rejects at his peril. Every church is to be an evangelical and gospel church. For the Lord uses means in the ingathering of souls. The church is to be His instrument in this world. With John Calvin we say: ‘My heart I offer to Thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely’. Calvinism is simply a statement of Apostolic truth rediscovered. It is the doctrine taught in the Westminster standards. The basis of acceptance is Christ’s work. We are justified by faith. That is to say, Christ’s righteousness is made over to sinners, and their sin is put upon the Saviour in His sacrificial work (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sinner is declared justified the moment he or she trusts in Christ. And saving faith itself is a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8-10).

BB Warfield brilliantly summed up Calvinism in its glorious comprehensiveness:

It may be summed up in these three propositions. Calvinism is (1) Theism comes to its rights. Calvinism is (2) Religion at the height of its conception. Calvinism is (3) Evangelicalism in its purest and most stable expression.

But Calvinism is not just a system of doctrine. It is a biblical world-view, rooted in the absolute sovereignty of God and His grace. The Calvinist will seek to bring every aspect of life and culture into subjection to Christ as Head. Perhaps this is a vision we have largely lost, with our concern to preserve conservative church life.

Abraham Kuyper stated that,

Wherever man may stand, whatever he may do, to whatever he may apply his hand, in agriculture, in commerce, and in industry, or his mind, in the world of art and science, he is, in whatsoever it may be, constantly standing before the face of his God, he is employed in the service of his God, he has strictly to obey his God, and above all, he has to aim at the glory of his God.

In Calvinism we are committed to glorifying God in all things – in our church life, in our family life, in our education, in our science, in our literature, in our music, in our sport, in all our lives in the world. It goes without saying that this requires devotion and discernment; it involves ‘bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5). It demands submission to the sovereign God and obedience to the Lordship of Christ, speaking through His Word. This in no way denies or diminishes the salvation of the individual as the first concern in biblical faith. Nor does it detract from the fact that heavenly expectations and rewards must occupy our earnest attention throughout our earthy lives (Colossians 3:1-2). Nevertheless, in Calvinism the soul is driven to seek the glory of God in all of our life under the sun. As Paul directed the Corinthians:

Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.1 Corinthians 10:31

Amidst all the concerns arising from church conflicts we must be especially careful not to lose this vision of the glorious truths of the divine sovereignty and the divine glory of Christ. These truths are the bedrock of a Reformed church consciously living before the face of God. That is to be our commitment as a church. It is also our priority, because our understanding of the gospel and the created world are rooted in this perspective.

Being Reformed in Worship🔗

We maintain a distinctively Reformed – we believe biblical – regulative principle of worship, which holds that nothing should be admitted to the public services of the church which is not warranted in the Word, either by direct precept or by good and necessary consequence. This is why we use in worship services only the divinely inspired Psalms of Scripture without musical accompaniment. We believe that to be agreeable to the Word of God properly understood – the all-important thing – but also historically to be in line with the position of the Reformed churches in Scotland (and elsewhere).

It is recognised that this separates us from the vast majority of churches which now admit hymns and songs of merely human composition in public worship, and adopt instrumental music. Many of them may otherwise genuinely hold to the Reformed faith. We must be careful in maintaining our position that we do not deny fellowship with others because they do not accept ‘exclusive Psalmody’. We will, however, without apology or embarrassment conscientiously maintain the right of our position. Yet, we must not think that because we use the right materials and are concerned to do what is approved by God, that how we engage in our worship is of lesser concern. A people may have the right doctrine and worship and yet may be dead and lifeless. If we do believe in the rightness of our Reformed worship then it must show, surely, in the care and enthusiasm which we have for it. Three questions arise:

  • Do our people really know why we sing only biblical materials in worship, unaccompanied?

  • Do we and our people truly appreciate how suitable the Psalms are for Christian praise?

  • Are our hearts in it?

This is not a matter of mere tradition, but of principle. It is clearly a central issue for a church. It does reflect the ‘ethos’ of our Church, precisely because it has to do with the worship of God. It must be our concern, therefore, to know and teach these principles in our congregations, and encourage a clear understanding and practice of our Psalmody amongst our people, and to the world outside. After all, this is in many ways the beating heart of our Reformed worship and piety.

Being Reformed in Church Order🔗

We believe that Presbyterianism is agreeable to the Word of God. We do not deny fellowship with other Reformed, Independent or Episcopalian brethren, but we do hold to our Presbyterian ground. As we suggested earlier, John Duncan’s ‘Creed within a Creed’ spelled out the classic Reformed position: ‘I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian’. This is a good model for Presbyterian and Reformed churches. In relation to our practice of Presbyterianism we have three offices in our church order – ministering elder, ruling elder and deacon. We are clear perhaps on the office and function of the ministry, and we require special training for our ministers. It is not so obvious, perhaps, that we are so clear on the nature and function of the offices of ruling elder or deacon. A very explicit Act was passed in the Free Church in 1846, which helpfully explained the duties of elders: ‘Respecting the peculiar duties of elders’. Five points were made:

  • That they sit in Session along with the Minister, and assist in the administration of discipline, and in the spiritual government of the church.

  • That they take a careful oversight of the people’s morals and religious principles, of the attendance upon public ordinances, and of the state of personal and family religion.

  • That they visit the sick from time to time in their several districts.

  • That they superintend the religious instruction of the young, and assist the Minister in ascertaining the qualifications of applicants for admission to sealing ordinances.

  • That they superintend and promote the formation of meetings within their districts for prayer, reading of the Scriptures, and Christian fellowship, among the members of the church.

How well do our people know the duties of elders and deacons and the distinction between them? Though the diaconate is not a ruling office, is it fully appreciated that it is a spiritual office appointed by Christ involving a ministry of caring, for the needy within the church, and even outside it? The nature and functions of the eldership are highlighted because the strength of our congregations arguably depends as much on the spiritual strength of this office as on the ministry itself. This is not in any way to diminish the distinct office of pastor/minister. For the office of ministry is appointed by Christ:

And He gave some, apostles; some, prophets; some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.Ephesians 4:11-12; 1Timothy 1:12

But how well taught are our people on the practice of our Presbyterian order in general and the nature of the offices in particular?

On the matter of Reformed church order we are ever to remember – not least in General Assembly – that Christ is the sole Head of the church, in all its courts and offices. To Him we are answerable. However, a proper administration of church law does not guarantee a prosperous and spiritually alive church. It can all become quite sterile or formal. I dare say the church at Ephesus was as orthodox and vigilant in discipline as may be, yet it was flawed by leaving its first love (Revelation 2:1-7). Indeed, even the church at Sardis had a name that it was alive, but was dead (Revelation 3:1-6). If we fail spiritually and practically to work out the principles of our worship and the nature and functions of our offices, we cannot expect the blessing of the Lord. We dare not to have a greater concern for church order than for the Great Commission itself.

Our Present Challenge🔗

The formal position of a church is one thing. It may be Reformed and orthodox and conservative Presbyterian with strong traditions. But questions still remain: What heart is beating within it; what spiritual life is coursing through its veins giving it life and hope; are these holy people; are they evangelical people; are they loving people; are they Christ-like people? We are a small church with limited material resources. We face challenges requiring faithfulness to Christ as Redeemer and Head. The Reformed Faith is a great source of encouragement and incentive to such faithfulness. On the one hand we are encouraged by the truth of the divine sovereignty embracing as it does the fact that Christ will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). On the other hand we have incentive for evangelism in the confidence that the Lord uses His church as an instrument in His purposes for the ingathering of sinners into His kingdom. We therefore have every reason for optimism as we seek to obey the Great Commission, which contains great promises for those faithful to it:

All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.Matthew 28:18-20

What, then, is the call to us as a Church in being faithful to our Reformed testimony in an age which has little understanding or appreciation of it? I humbly suggest several challenges:

We Are to Maintain a High View of Scripture🔗

Sadly, there has been a terrible downgrade in our nation in the place and views of the Bible. The critical views of the Bible that developed from the third quarter of the 19th Century in our country have largely undermined attitudes in many churches to the inspiration and authority of the Bible. This has been compounded with the rise of evolutionary science and a secular media and education system. One way or another, the downgrade has all but destroyed the church in Scotland as a spiritual force, in the wake of concessions to the anti-supernaturalism of the age. Against such trends we will hold to the supra-natural origin of this world, as revealed in the book of Genesis, and to the full inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. We affirm that they are authoritative – every ‘jot and tittle’. Our spiritual and doctrinal position derives from a high view of Scripture as the Word of God.

We Are to Be Faithful with the Message🔗

Naturally a people with a high view of the inspiration of Scripture will have a deep concern for the message. Since the Bible is the truth, the message it contains is therefore of supreme importance for any soul. The Bible speaks of a Creator and a created order (Genesis 1-2). It warns of sin, its guilt and consequences (Romans 3:23; 6:23). It warns of the dangers of living without God and without hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12). It warns that all people will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). It warns of the reality of eternal punishment for all impenitent souls (Matthew 7:13; John 5:24-30; Revelation 20:10-15). We hold to the perpetuity of the moral law, summarised in the Ten Commandments. The preaching of the law brings conviction of sin, and living out the commandments glorifies their Giver. We will therefore preach ‘all the counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27) and will urge upon sinners the good news of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:14; John 3:15-18). Whatever the modern sensitivities about multiculturalism; whatever denials of the exclusive claims of Christ even in churches or other such deviations; we will proclaim the message loud and clear of a Sovereign God; of an exclusive, willing and gracious Saviour; of the sovereignty of divine grace in salvation; and of the reality of heaven for the saved but eternal punishment for those who die impenitent (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Let our gospel be full and free; and may it be in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

We Are to Cultivate Humility of Spirit🔗

Humility is necessary in any Christian and Christian church. Remember how Paul spoke to the Corinthians:

For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?1 Corinthians 4:7

Or, as he exhorted the Romans:

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.1 Corinthians 12:16

Brethren, we should maintain our principles and practices with humility. When we make strong claims about our position, we ought to do so always with modesty, not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought (Romans 12:3). In the saying already quoted, Rabbi Duncan referred to catholicity – using the word in a general sense of ‘freedom from prejudice’. We should be generous-spirited amongst those who may differ from us in church order or worship or the administration of the sacraments. We will rejoice in fellowship with likeminded brethren and churches, though they may differ from us in the understanding of aspects of our Reformed faith or practice. We must be modest, charitable, generous and winsome – humble before God – without any blunting of our convictions.

We Are to Be United in Vision and Purpose🔗

Any healthy church will be united. It ought to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). If this is not true of a church it will be limited in usefulness. It is something to be worked at. Our sinful state and the work of the evil one ensure that there will be issues arising in churches that tend to divide, or hinder its spiritual life. But unity is related to vision. Do we have a united vision in the life and witness of the church? Does it relate to advancing the Kingdom of God in the world? One thing is certain; we will not make progress apart from prayer and holiness. Reformed doctrine and practice and order are nothing apart from Reformed piety.

The Puritan divine John Owen put it this way:

If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.

Or, as challengingly stated by Robert Murray M’Cheyne:

It is not great talents that God blesses as much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.

The same can be said of course of a holy people. Let us be Spirit-filled people.

We Are to Reflect Christian Love in All Our Dealings🔗

What is the most essential ingredient of a spiritually healthy church? It must be Christian love. After all, this is the greatest gift (1 Corinthians 13:13). This is crystal-clear in John’s first letter. It is a prominent attribute of the Godhead; it was the source of the incarnation and the atonement and therefore in the provision of the gospel itself. It is behind the chastening by the Lord of His people. It will consequently be the heartbeat of a living Reformed church. It is one element of all elements that dare not be wanting in a church. It is that aspect of church life without which it will be structure without a heart, body without blood, and furnace without fire. It is the primary mark of the Christian and therefore of the Christian church. Thus, says Paul, ‘follow after charity’ (1 Corinthians 14:1). If the world is not able to say: ‘See how these Christians love one another,’ the church will lack credibility. This Christian love will operate in several ways. It will be exercised on the one hand toward the Lord. The Christian is to love the Lord above all; to love Christ as Redeemer; to love the truth; to love the ordinances; to love the Sabbath and all the commandments. But let us remember that the commandments are summed up in this:

Love God above all and your neighbour as yourself. Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9

This love flows in that direction too: towards others, within the church, in our families and to the world. But how exemplary are we of this divinely-quickened love? What love do we have for the souls of men and for the gospel that provides the loving remedy for the sinner’s greatest need – if they would get to glory at last? What did Paul desire for the Thessalonians?

And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men.1 Thessalonians 3:12

Fathers and brethren, ‘increase and abound’ in love!

We Are to Have a Lively Expectation🔗

In desiring of the Thessalonians that they increase and abound in love, Paul provides the reason:

To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints.1 Thessalonians 3:13

What is the great expectation of the church? It is our Lord’s Second Coming at the end of history, ushering in the general resurrection and the day of judgment. We are to be holy people waiting for His return, praying for it, watching for it (2 Peter 3:10-14). Paul, coming to the end of his life and work was able to say this:

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.2 Timothy 4:7

He had confidence concerning his own expectation:

Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day.2 Timothy 4:8

He was confident that this was the promise for all who likewise ‘kept the faith’. He puts it this way: ‘and not to me only but unto all them also that love His appearing’. We are to be as those who are waiting for their Lord from heaven (1 Corinthians 1:7), longing for His appearing, loving the very thought of it.


Fathers and brethren, and Christian friends, as long as we are here we are to fight the good fight of faith. This is our duty and privilege as a Reformed church and as individuals, because the day will dawn when the shadows will flee away when we will know even as we are known and we must give an account to God. Let us by all means be a living body of burning zeal and love upon this earth – for the Lord, for His truth, for one another, and for the lost, seeking untiringly by His grace to be instruments in His hands for the salvation of sinners and the hastening of His coming.

We began with a picture from a saying of ‘Rabbi’ Duncan. We end with a picture with which Abraham Kuyper closed his 1898 Lectures on Calvinism:

The period in which we are living at present, is surely at a low ebb religiously. Unless God send forth His Spirit, there will be no turn, and fearfully rapid will be the descent of the waters. But you remember the Aeolian Harp, which men were wont to place outside their casement, that the breeze might wake its music into life … if the harp did not lie in readiness, a rustling of the breeze might be heard, but not a single note of ethereal music delighted the ear. Now, let Calvinism be nothing but such an Aeolian Harp – absolutely powerless, as it is, without the quickening Spirit of God – still we feel it our God-given duty to keep our harp, its strings tuned aright, ready in the window of God’s Holy Zion, awaiting the breath of the Spirit.

What can we say? May the Lord be pleased to send us the breath of the Spirit in our needy day!

Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20). Amen.

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