What does it mean to be Reformed Evangelical? | Christ Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC)

What does it mean to be Reformed Evangelical?

Mark D. Thompson

What does it mean to say that Moore College is both “reformed” and “evangelical”? In some parts of the world it would seem odd to use both these terms to describe yourself, your church or your college. Indeed there is sometimes a mutual suspicion between the “reformed” and the “evangelicals”.

“Reformed” is a theological label indicating a theological heritage associated with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, and more particularly with men like Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger.

The most important characteristic of “reformed” thinking is its stress on the loving, gracious sovereignty of God over all his creation and in every area of human life. On the grand scale, through all the ups and downs of human history, God is moving things forward toward the goal he has intended: a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Pet 3:13) and where his people from every nation, tribe, people, and language rejoice in the redemption we have in Jesus (Rev 7:9–10). On the smaller scale, God has done everything necessary to secure the salvation of each one of his people. Our salvation begins with God’s decision rather than ours (Eph 1:4). We come to Jesus in response to his call (Matt 11:28–30). It is his work from beginning to end which we simply receive with gratitude and faith.

Reformed thinking finds eloquent expression in the Heidelberg Confession (1563), the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (1571), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648). Reformed, Anglican and Presbyterian churches all claim this theological heritage. In the last century it has been expounded with clarity and conviction by men like Louis Berkhof, John Murray, J. I. Packer, and D. B. Knox.

“Evangelical” is seen as more than a theological label. It describes a mode of life which keeps the gospel and its proclamation at its centre. Evangelicals see our greatest human need as salvation from sin and judgment, with all their terrible consequences. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ answers that need, with the announcement of Jesus’ victory over sin, death and judgment, and a summons to respond with repentance and faith. That is why the gospel shapes our priorities both individually and as the gathering of God’s rescued people in a particular place (the church).

Evangelicals look back to the Bible, since it is only there that the true gospel is to be found— namely the gospel preached by Jesus and his apostles. They look around at a world lost without Christ and desperately needing to hear that gospel (whether they realise it or not). They look forward to the end, when Jesus will return, every enemy will be defeated, God’s redeeming purpose will be fulfilled in all its fullness, and every knee will bow acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord. They recognise that the period between Jesus’ first coming and his second is the time of gospel mission: “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:14).

Holding both “reformed” and “evangelical” together keeps us from two dangers. It keeps us from being inward looking, preoccupied with doctrinal purity, constantly differentiating ourselves from those with different views. Not that doctrinal truthfulness and clarity are unimportant. Without sound doctrine, God’s people suffer with every new wave of human alternatives to God’s truth. Yet doctrinal truthfulness and clarity serve a higher purpose: the faithful proclamation of the gospel so that lost men and women might be saved. Christian discipleship is not self-focussed and self-protective. It is exercised in the world God loved so much that he sent his Son (John 3:16).

On the other hand, affirming these two descriptors together keeps us from placing our emphasis on what we do rather than on God’s saving power in evangelism, and a preoccupation with the near goal of personal conversion rather than the final goal of Christian maturity. The apostolic mission of the New Testament was not satisfied with an initial decision to follow Jesus. Paul, Peter and John (not to mention the unnamed author of the Book of Hebrews) were all vitally concerned with Christian growth. The apostle Peter finishes his second letter with the words,

You therefore, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 3:17–18)

Using both words, “reformed” and “evangelical”, to describe ourselves reminds us that we don’t have to choose between sound doctrine and evangelistic zeal. The two go hand in hand. Our commitment to evangelism—to personal conversion, a call to repentance and faith, to a spirit-filled life of freedom, joy and humble obedience—arises from our theology. It is God’s character and his purpose, revealed to us in the Scriptures, that drive us forward. As Paul put it, “knowing the fear of the Lord” and “compelled by the love of Christ”, we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:11–21). “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v21).

Perhaps one of the most significant little books to remind us that our understanding of God’s sovereignty does not lead us to just sit back and watch what happens, but to be active in prayerful evangelism until Jesus returns, has been Jim Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Leicester: IVP, 1961). This is how it ends:

… this doctrine does not in any way reduce or narrow the terms of our evangelistic commission. Now we see that, so far from contracting them, it actually expands them. For it faces us with the fact that there are two sides to the evangelistic commission. It is a commission, not only to preach, but also to pray; not only to talk to men about God, but also to talk to God about men. Preaching and prayer must go together; our evangelism will not be according to knowledge, nor will it be blessed, unless they do. We are to preach, because without knowledge of the gospel no man can be saved. We are to pray, because only the sovereign Holy Spirit in us and in men’s hearts can make our preaching effective to men’s salvation, and God will not send His Spirit where there is no prayer. (p124)

At Moore College we gladly embrace reformed theology—without being bound to a system, but testing everything against Scripture—and we joyfully pursue the priority of evangelism, knowing that the gospel is what we and our world need more than anything else.

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Mark D. Thompson (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, where he has been teaching Christian doctrine for thirty years. He is the chair of the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission and a member of the GAFCON Theological Resource Group. He is the author of A Clear and Present Word. Mark is married to Kathryn, and they have four daughters.