Mission work is done by us in obedience to the command of Christ. He calls us to preach and teach His gospel of truth to all the nations of the world. This must be done tirelessly and unceasingly until the day of His return.
The truth that Christ has given us to proclaim in our mission work is not something bland, for we have in our possession as a Reformed church the rich and precious heritage of the Reformed faith. Christ has entrusted that to us. We are privileged and blessed to have it. And thus we are able to preach and teach what it really means to be a Reformed believer and a Reformed church.
That raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Reformed church?
This is a significant question in the work of missions, especially as we have as our goal to establish, as the Lord wills and under His blessing, Reformed churches. In my own (limited) experience as a missionary, I have had to answer this question many times. I have also given a series of lectures on the subject. Those whom the Lord places in our path seriously want to know what it means for them to be Reformed (or Protestant Reformed) churches.
In answer to this question, we will consider especially five things that characterize a truly Reformed church.
First of all, a Reformed church is one that is Reformed in its history.
This means it is a church that has a direct, historical connection to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. It is an heir of what God restored to His church at that time. It follows in the footsteps and path of the reformers.
Prior to the Reformation the church had become corrupt. The Roman Catholic Church was the worldwide church of that day. But it was thoroughly man-centered in doctrine, idolatrous in worship, and immoral in life. The Word of God had been replaced with the inventions and traditions of men.
God used the reformers to reshape and renew His church. Through such men as Martin Luther and John Calvin, God delivered His remnant church from the evil traditions of men. God brought His church back to His Word and put her on the “old paths” and the “good way” that alone provide “rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).
A Reformed church is not, therefore, a progressive church, with new ideas, contemporary practices, and novel ways of attracting people into its membership. Such a church has departed from the Word of God and is on the road to apostasy.
The Reformed church is one that loves and walks on the old paths set forth in the Word of God. She recognizes the great work God did, through the reformers, to lead His church back to the truth. She holds to the five great “solas” of the Reformation: Scripture alone, Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, and Glory to God alone.
For some churches, being Reformed in history means they are able to trace their historical roots directly to the Protestant Reformation. They have, by the grace of God, been Reformed in their generations. Their calling, then, is to be sure they remain on that historical path that has been handed down to them from generation to generation.
But for others, to be Reformed in history means they must first find the old paths, and then begin the work of walking in them. This is how it is for those among whom we labor in the Philippines. The Reformed faith is something new to them and their generations. They have had to discover what the historical path of the Reformed faith is, and then deliberately set their feet on that path. And by the grace of God, this is what they have done and are doing.
Secondly, a Reformed church is one that is Reformed in its doctrine.
This follows from being historically Reformed. In fact, so close is the connection that we may say a Reformed church is one that is historically Reformed in its doctrine. It is a church that upholds the truth as taught by the reformers. It is a church that is confessional, walking the path of the truth as set forth in the Reformed creeds.
For us as Protestant Reformed churches, to be Reformed in doctrine, and to have as our desire to establish churches that are such, means that we believe and teach distinct truths. I have in mind the fact that God has given us, through our history, a distinct and clear understanding of the truth of His absolute sovereignty in salvation—specifically over against two errors: common grace, and a conditional covenant.
Many so-called Reformed churches claim to be preaching and teaching this same truth. But the sad fact is that they have long ago departed. They no longer hold to sound doctrine. They have abandoned the old paths and the good way of the Word of God. Though they might claim otherwise, such churches are no longer Reformed.
The truly Reformed church confesses that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. There are no works of man involved. There are no conditions for man to fulfill. God is everything, and man is nothing. The truth that such a church confesses is a truth that gives all honor and praise to God. If what a church teaches fails to do this, it simply is not Reformed.
But that is not all. The church that is truly Reformed in doctrine also confesses that the grace of God is particular. There is no such thing as a common grace of God. He does not love all men. Nor does He offer salvation to all in the preaching of the gospel. If a church denies any of this, it has no right to claim to be Reformed.
Still more. A truly Reformed church holds to doctrine that is covenantal.
This means first of all that over against those who speak of the covenant as a pact or agreement, a truly Reformed church confesses that the covenant is God’s relationship of friendship with His people. He makes us His friends in Christ. He brings us into the enjoyment of a life of blessed fellowship in His own family. And He does this without our fulfilling “covenant conditions.” We are saved and brought into the covenant fellowship of God only because God Himself brings us in.
To hold to covenantal doctrine also means confessing truth that stands in stark contrast to the views of Baptists (confronted often in our work in the Philippines). Over against their dispensational views, the truly Reformed church teaches the unity of the Old and New Testaments. Her firm conviction, on the basis of God’s Word, is that God has one covenant, one covenant people, one covenant Savior, and one covenant way of salvation.
And it is also the firm conviction of the truly Reformed church that the covenant of God includes the children of believers. The church and kingdom of God is made up, not of adults only, but of believers and their seed. God also brings children into His covenant fellowship (something that clearly underscores, by the way, the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation). The truly Reformed church holds to and practices, not believers’ baptism, but infant baptism.
These are some of the main doctrines we hold to and teach. Through sermons each Lord’s day, through Heidelberg Catechism preaching, through occasional lectures, through catechism instruction for children and youth, through classes for young people and young adults on the Belgic Confession of Faith, through an adult study of the Canons of Dordt, through weekly Bible studies, through discussing with interested contacts the distinctive doctrines of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and through instructing existing and prospective ministers in the six loci of Reformed dogmatics—in all these concrete ways we have the opportunity, in our mission work, to make it clear what it means for a church to be truly Reformed in doctrine.
What a privilege it is to teach and preach sound doctrine (II Tim. 4:3). We are able to teach others what it means to be Reformed, not just in name, but in truth. We are able to work toward establishing churches that are truly Reformed in this regard.
To be Reformed in history and doctrine is crucial, for it is foundational. Only if a church is well grounded in the truths of God’s Word, as set forth in our Reformed creeds and confessions, will that church continue to be and does that church have the right to call herself Reformed. Sound doctrine is fundamental.
But some might think that doctrine is all that matters. They might even say, “We have Reformed doctrine, and that’s enough. That’s what makes us a truly Reformed church!”
Some do indeed take that perspective. There are those (and we have met them) who seem to be interested in only one thing with regard to being Reformed—doctrine. Nothing else. Nothing more.
But to be Reformed in doctrine is not enough. The Reformed faith is all-encompassing. When the Reformed faith takes hold of a person and church, it makes radical and sweeping changes. There is no area in the life of the church or believer that is left untouched.
It is this that we will consider when we return to this subject in the near future, the Lord willing, to look at the three remaining characteristics of a truly Reformed church.