When we say that we are a “Reformed” church, what exactly does that mean? Good question!
If you were to ask that question to 10 different Christians, you might get 10 different answers. Some might just shrug their shoulders and say they have no idea what that means. Others might claim to be Reformed simply because they believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation (i.e. the doctrine of unconditional election). Others might go further still and say that it is a matter of being a full 5-point Calvinist (as if that represents the summary of Reformed thought, or even Calvin’s teaching, for that matter).
The fact of the matter is that there may not be any one foolproof definition of “reformed” that we can all agree upon completely. But what we are saying when we call ourselves “reformed” is that we are a church that stands in the tradition of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Simply put, we are a Protestant church. In some ways you could sum that up doctrinally by saying two (2) things:
- We believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture. We hold that the Bible is the only rule for faith and practice. Ultimately the Bible and the Bible alone settles all questions of faith (what we believe and teach) and practice (how we are to live in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ).
- We believe in the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. We are forgiven and accepted by a holy God solely because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed or reckoned to us by faith alone.
Not only are we a Protestant church, but we are also a Reformed church in that we hold to the doctrinal standards that were introduced by the churches of the Reformation. In continental Europe (think: Switzerland, Germany, etc.) the Reformed churches came to hold to confessional documents known as the “Three Forms of Unity” (which consist of three things: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort); while in the British Isles (England, Ireland, and Scotland) the Reformed churches came to hold to the Westminster Standards (which also consist of three things: the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism). Both of these sets of confessional standards are remarkably similar. They essentially teach the same system of doctrine. (Great minds really do think alike!)
The Presbyterian churches in particular are basically those churches who trace our ecclesiastical roots to the churches of the Reformation on the British Isles. So our doctrinal standards are the Westminster Standards. We believe that they contain the system of doctrine that is found in the Bible. We are a church that is ever-reforming itself according to the Scriptures.
Worship in Reformed churches tends to be rather simple – not many bells and whistles (literal or figurative). And that is because we believe that Scripture alone determines and prescribes what belongs in the public worship of the church. The theological term for this idea is the regulative principle of worship. Basically the Bible regulates worship. If the Bible does not prescribe something, we do not believe that it belongs in our worship. So we pray, we sing Scriptural songs (including Psalms!), we minister the Word in preaching, and administer the Sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) according to Scripture.
We hope that you find this all-too-brief summary to be helpful.