The Reformed Tradition

I wrote the following essay for a video lesson series that our congregation used to study the Church’s history this past summer. The seventh video was on the Reformed Tradition. It particularly answered the question: What does it mean to be Reformed? If you would like to watch the videos, you can find them here.


We are back for the seventh lesson in our summer series on the history of the Christian Church. One of the things that we have noticed, or at least said throughout the previous 6 lessons, is that the history of the Church is the history of the Western world since the beginnings of the New Testament Church during Pentecost. 

The Church’s history has either shaped Western civilization directly or indirectly, meaning that the society in which we live has either embraced the Church and taken its form from the religion of the Church, or it has taken it’s shape by actively pushing against the Church. 

But, there is no denying the fact that the western world’s history is intertwined with the Church’s history. It’s an historical reality. 

Today, I thought we would take a moment to explore the aftereffects of the Protestant Reformation on the Church communities that came from it. Last week I gave you three hallmarks of the Reformation that summarize, to a large degree, the theological and church life commitments of the post-Reformation congregations. They are: 

  1. The Authority of God’s Word;
  2. Justification by Grace Through Faith Alone;
  3. The Priesthood of Believers.

These three theological commitments greatly impacted the culture of the congregations within this Reformed tradition. So, today, I thought we’d take our time to work through some of the distinguishing characteristics of the ethos (or culture) of the Reformed tradition. In essence, we’re going to answer the question: What does it mean to be Reformed? Or, what does it mean to be faithful to the historic Reformed tradition? 

Why is this Important? 

You may be wondering why answering this question is important. I’ll tell you. Simply put, we are a Reformed congregation. And, it’s not because we have reformed in our name — Chester Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. It’s actually because we are Presbyterians. Next week, we’ll get into the specifics of the Scottish Reformation and the development of Presbyterianism. But, for now, we’ll leave it at this: as Presbyterians we are a part of the Reformed tradition. 

The Reformation Spread Quickly 

As we get started, let me give you an idea of how quickly the Reformation spread throughout Europe. Last week, I said it spread like wildfire due to the printing press, the renewed sense of intellectual advancement, and the growing sense of connectivity among the citizens of the various European countries. Society was becoming more mobile as well. 

The Reformation began in Saxony (Germany) in 1517 and spread to neighboring nations immediately. A few years after Luther was excommunicated at the Diet of Worms (1521), Huldrich Zwingli started reforming Swiss Christian congregations in 1523. From there, the movement picked up momentum as it was propelled by the Holy Spirit. Below is a list of Confessional documents that were written and adopted soon after the initial blows of the Reformation were thrown.

  1. Augsburg Confession — 1530 in Germany
  2. The First Helvetic Confession — 1536 in Switzerland (Bring unity on Lord’s Supper) 
  3. John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion — 1536 in France 
  4. Scots Confession — 1560 in Scotland 
  5. Belgic Confession — 1566 in Holland — Canons of Dort in 1619 
  6. 39 Articles — 1571 in England 
  7. French Confession — 1579 in France 

All told, eight Confessional statements, representing 8 different Confessional bodies were written and approved within 58 years of Luther’s excommunication. 60 years is a long time for us. But, when you think about change within the Christian Church throughout all of Europe, it’s an amazingly short time. God worked quickly and broadly to establish the Reformed tradition, which changed the western world. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said of the Scottish Reformation under John Knox, “It is no exaggeration to say that the Protestant Reformation changed and turned the entire course of history, not only the history of the church but secular history.” 

Since this is the case, it behooves us to think about the distinguishing characteristics of the Reformed tradition? Our tradition. Our story. 

The Distinguishing Characteristics of the Reformed Tradition 

I want to point out six characteristics of the Reformed tradition. I’ve seen as many as nine identified, but for our purposes, six will do just fine. (As always, they’ll be listed in on the video). Here they are: 

  1. A Focus on the Majesty and Praise of God;
  2. An Understanding of Divine Providence At Work in All Things;
  3. A Commitment to a Life of Holiness;
  4. A Dedication to the Principle of Faith Seeking Understanding;
  5. A Conviction that Preaching Should be Plain and Powerful; 
  6. An Insistence on the Simplicity of Faith.

Let’s work our way through them. 

A Focus on the Majesty and Praise of God

For Reformed Christians, God is the center of life and theology. He is the Creator of all things, the Redeemer of His people, and the King of Kings. There is none higher than Him and there will never be one higher than Him. This conviction comes from the Reformed Christian’s belief in the authority of the Bible. No one can read the Scriptures seriously and not conclude that the Bible is all about God and His glory. This reality has at least three consequences for the Reformed Christian. 

First, this focus makes worship the principle purpose of the Church and the individual person. Both Church and person share the same chief end — to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Fundamentally, God has created and redeemed His people for the sole purpose of His glory. And therefore, they live lives of humble subjection to Him because they trust Him to accomplish His good purposes. 

Second, this focus makes Reformed Christians ask the fundamental question: how is a man or woman made right before this holy, majestic, and powerful God? It’s not about finding a little bit of help in this life, or some physical healing, or a tad of guidance for this life, or some inner peace, or a friend to help with loneliness. It’s about being right with the Creator of the Universe, the maker of our souls. Reformed Christians are convinced that they are at odds with their Creator, and so their concern is reconciliation, which is reflected in the way they worship, the way they live, and the way they minister to others. 

Third, this focus causes Reformed Christians to fight against the sin of idolatry. If God’s glory is the supreme end of life, then anything, anyone, or any practice that threatens His glory must be eradicated. It’s simple, really. God and His glory is pursued above everything else. 

An Understanding of Divine Providence at Work in All Things

If God is majestic, powerful, and the Creator of all things, then He is sovereign over all things by definition. This means that He is working in and through all things to accomplish His divine purposes for His glory. The Reformed Christian trusts Him and allows Him to be the sovereign God of all Creation. He has a perspective and purpose that the Reformed Christian does not, and the Reformed Christian isn’t bothered by it in the least. He or she rests in the truth that God is working in everything to accomplish His purposes, and those purposes will be good for His people because He has promised so in His Word. God always keeps His promises, for He is a covenant keeper. 

A Commitment to a Life of Holiness 

Since God’s glory is supreme, and in His love and grace He reconciles undeserving men and women to Himself, then those who have received that reconciliation owe a life of holiness and obedience to Him. So, Reformed Christians and their congregations are committed to living holy and disciplined lives. But, this commitment doesn’t apply to Christians only. It also applies to the general public as well. Because of their conviction that all men are to live for the glory of God, Reformed Christians believe that general society should be reformed according to the Word of God and God’s standard of morality as well. This has caused Reformed Christians and their congregations to challenge friends, family, local and national governments to live, educate, and legislate according to the teachings of the Bible. 

A Dedication to the Principle of Faith Seeking Understanding 

A faith that seeks to understand the character of God, the world He created, and the faith that testifies to Him is a hallmark of the Reformed tradition. Reformed Christians and their congregations are not satisfied with an unapologetically anti-intellectual Christianity. They are convinced that the development of the intellectual components of the faith are both glorifying to God and essential for faithfulness. It is impossible to separate Christian practice from Christian doctrine. Thought informs and determines action. Therefore, Reformed Christians prioritize education within the Church and the society at large. Many of the world’s greatest universities trace their origins to the traditions of Reformed Christianity. 

A Conviction that Preaching Should be Plain and Powerful

Reformed congregations not only prize the corporate worship gathering, they also prize the proclamation of God’s Word from the pulpit. But, there are two specific qualities that preaching ought to possess. First, it is to be plain and clear. A sermon should be written and delivered plainly and clearly enough that the worshippers will learn who God is and be challenged to live according to His will. Second, preaching should be powerful, which is dependent upon the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Delivering and hearing a sermon is a spiritual experience through which God speaks to His people. 

An Insistence on the Simplicity of Faith

Reformed Christians and their congregations insist on the simplicity of the Christian faith in every aspect of it. They do this because of their commitment to the authority of God’s Word. If God prescribes it, then they do it. If God doesn’t prescribe it, then it is not required. Life and worship really are simple when viewed through this lens. Love God, do what He says, worship as He prescribes, and fulfill the ministry that He gives to the Christian and the congregation. There’s no need to add to what God says, and Reformed Christians refuse to do so because of their adherence to the Bible’s teaching on the Sovereignty and majesty of God. What He says is what goes. 


And, there you have it. Six characteristics of the Reformed tradition. Now that we have them, we’ll move into the specifics of the Scottish Reformation and establishment of Presbyterianism next week. See you then! 

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