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Reformed theology has an image problem among the ranks of evangelical Christianity. And anyone who has had the unfortunate problem of being either misunderstood or misrepresented knows that it is not an easy task to repair one’s image. Other articles in this issue have taken on some of the most common misunderstandings (allegations and assumptions held by non-Reformed Christians about Reformed theology), and misrepresentations (inconsistent and imbalanced expressions of the Reformed faith by those who claim to be Reformed) associated with the negative image of Reformed theology. It is my task to challenge those who are in the wide circle of Reformed Christianity to do our part in fixing this marred image.
Misconceptions and misrepresentations aside, let us not allow our rich theological heritage to be obscured by external allegations or internal inconsistencies. Ours is a religion of both the head and the heart. Therefore, our engagement in theological debates, as we seek to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” should not preclude us from rendering our “bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable unto God.” Nehemiah 4 is a good illustration of what I mean. As the Israelites were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem they heard of a conspiracy by their enemies to attack and create confusion (v. 8). After praying and setting armed guards in strategic locations (vv. 9, 13–14), Nehemiah then describes those who worked on the wall in verse 17: “Those who built on the wall, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction and with the other held a weapon.” I am not suggesting that we cease in our efforts to defend the Gospel. But as we do battle, let us follow the example of these ambidextrous builders — build and defend.
To this end, I first charge the preachers and pastors in Reformed churches to “preach the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Balanced, biblical preaching and teaching can go a long way in producing biblically-balanced Christians. What I mean by this is we must preach law and Gospel, the indicatives and the imperatives of Scripture. From talking to Reformed pastors I get the feeling from some that they are afraid that in preaching the apostolic imperatives they will be accused of preaching works righteousness. This is an understandable concern, but it doesn’t change the fact of our obligation to preach the whole counsel of God. Preaching through whole books of the Bible is helpful in this regard, because in doing so we are able to delineate the categories more clearly. Paul’s writings, in particular, are a good example of this. He usually presents the indicatives of the Gospel in the opening chapters and then moves to the imperatives, in light of the indicatives. Reading one of Paul’s epistles it would be impossible to conclude that Christianity is “just” a matter of right doctrine. Let’s face it, one of the misconceptions about Reformed theology is that it tends to be long on doctrine and short on practice. Balanced preaching can offset this.
Secondly, I charge the members of Reformed churches to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22). On the whole there is no shortage of good preaching and teaching in Reformed circles. In addition, there are conferences, books, and a host of other resources out there disseminating good information. Granted, some of our conferences tend to focus on what is wrong with evangelicalism, but others expound various aspects of the faith.
We have heard and read about the importance of missions and evangelism from a Reformed perspective, but is reading and hearing enough? James warns us that hearing without doing produces self-deception. And certainly those that think knowing what’s wrong with Arminian evangelistic methods excuses them from sharing the Gospel are deceived. Our catechisms provide rich expositions and applications of the doctrines we embrace, and if we do not seek to live them out it is to our shame. Personal piety is one subject in particular that tends to be a favorite target of some Reformed extremists. We know that quiet times, saying grace over our meals, and abstaining from alcoholic beverages are not the sum total of Christian piety; in fact, we are quick to point out the liberties we have in Christ, as well as the hints of legalism in contemporary evangelical piety. But as we hear the Word of God expounded in all of its fullness, should we not take heed to what we are told about our conduct and speech? Being Reformed does not mean being unconcerned about personal piety.
Thirdly, let us remember we have been left in this world intentionally (John 17:15–18). In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prays specifically that God would not take His disciples out of the world. In fact, He says just as the Father had sent Him into the world, He had sent His disciples into the world. This fallen, sin-sick, crime-filled world is where we have been left, and it is where the kingdom of God is being established. Whether it be through politics, the arts, or the academy, our doctrines exhort us to engage this present world.
In short, let those of us in the Reformed tradition strive to make our calling and election sure by living out our faith even as we engage in fierce theological debate. Let us be ambidextrous, building and defending, following the examples from our rich tradition.