The Triune God
God is creator, redeemer, and sustainer
- Triune: The Christian understanding of God as three persons united in one essence.
- Providence: The power God uses to see to it that everything happens in order to bring about his loving, wise purposes.
We believe in one God who eternally exists in three equally divine persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is “eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good” (Belgic Confession, Article 1).
God the Father is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, sustaining and providentially ruling over creation in an active relationship of love. Through God the Son, whom we know as Jesus Christ, God redeems a people for himself and restores his creation. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, God is present to us, making us more into the image of Jesus Christ. All of this is done “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6).
The sovereignty of God
God is sovereign over the universe
Reformed Christians have a high view of God’s sovereignty, a belief that “nothing happens in this world without God’s orderly arrangement” (Belgic Confession, Article 13). But we don’t believe God uses that power carelessly. Instead, we emphasize God’s loving providence, which explains that God makes all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28). God’s sovereignty is exercised as God sustains “heaven and earth and all creatures” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 27) and in the particular way that God “gathers, protects, and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end” (Belhar Confession, Point 1).
How we know God
- Revelation: The ways that God makes himself known to us.
Early Christians said that God revealed himself to us through two “books”: the book of nature and the book of Scripture. We know God through the world God created, including our own selves: “The universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder … God’s eternal power and divinity” (Belgic Confession, Article 2). The book of nature shows us God as Creator, but it is not sufficient to know God as Redeemer. Additionally, as a result of sin, we cannot even see God rightly in creation. Only with the spectacles of Scripture are we able to see God’s glory revealed in creation.
The Bible brings a specificity to God’s self-revelation that’s not available in creation. In Scripture, God reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What we learn of God through Scripture is sufficient to provide us with what “we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation” (Belgic Confession, Article 2).
The Bible is the Word of God
We believe the Bible—the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments—was not composed “by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). Because God is their true author, the words of Scripture are holy and divine. We trust the words of the Bible “above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God” (Belgic Confession, Article 5).
One of the defining characteristics of the Reformation was its insistence on sola Scriptura, or the belief that everything we need for salvation and a life of faith is available in Scripture. Reformed Christians sometimes say the Bible is “the only rule of faith and life.”
Why we need salvation
Human beings are broken and sinful
- Total depravity: the belief that, because of the fall, human nature is deeply corrupted by sin.
- Original sin: belief that since the fall of humanity into sin, all humans have inherited a sinful nature.
Human beings started out with the ability to follow God’s will perfectly (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 9). God sculpted us in his own image, as mirrors of God’s goodness, justice, and holiness.
But we chose to turn away from God. Our disobedience “so poisoned our nature” that all of us are wired from birth to be sinners (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 7). And the sin of humans caused all of creation to be “subjected to futility” and put “in bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20, 21). All of the perfection of God’s original creation has been undone as a result of humanity’s rebellion against God.
We’re broken, and it’s impossible for us to fix ourselves. No matter how hard we try to do the right thing, “sin constantly boils forth as though from a contaminated spring” (Belgic Confession, Article 15). Without God’s grace, we “are neither willing nor able to return to God” (Canons of Dort, Main Points 3 and 4, Article 3).
God’s justice demands that our sin be punished. But only someone who is both “a true and righteous human,” and “also true God” could ever p
Atonement through Christ alone
Jesus died to atone for our sins
- Atonement: reconciliation with God, from whom sin divides us.
Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, came to earth to reconcile us with God. Jesus became human and lived a life without sin. Then he sacrificed his life in our name.
By suffering death on the cross, Jesus took the punishment our sins deserved.
His death “is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” (Canons of Dort, Main Point 2, Article 3).
Three days after Jesus died, he rose from the dead. Through his resurrection, Jesus conquered death so that anyone who believes in him can join him in everlasting life.
Justification through faith alone
Faith in Jesus is all we need to be saved
- Justification: to be made right in the eyes of God.
Even in our best moments, our actions are stained with sin. Yet out of sheer grace, God gives us the righteousness of Christ. Christ wipes our record clean. It’s as if we have never sinned. All we have to do is accept his gift of salvation “with a believing heart” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 60).
In other words, we are justified by faith, not by anything we’ve done. Our righteousness is in Jesus. We couldn’t live a perfect life ourselves, so he lived a perfect life for us. Faith is the “instrument by which we embrace Christ.” It “keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits” (Belgic Confession, Article 22).
Salvation through grace alone
God gives us the faith to receive salvation
- Unconditional election:belief that God has chosen people to save in advance and prepares their hearts to receive the gift of salvation; God offers this gift to people not based on their merit but as an act of undeserved grace.
We’re so trapped in sin that we cannot find our way back to God on our own. As Christ says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (John 6:44).
God gives us the faith to accept salvation as an act of undeserved grace (Canons of Dort, Main Point 1, Article 7). We receive this gift without any consideration of the things we’ve done. Our merits and strength have nothing to do with it.
You cannot lose the gift of salvation
Faith in Christ isn’t a gift God will take away from you. God preserves the seed of our faith in times of doubt. And no matter how badly we sin, salvation in Jesus covers us.
“God’s plan cannot be changed; God’s promise cannot fail; the calling according to God’s purpose cannot be revoked” (Canons of Dort, Main Point 5, Article 8). If God has chosen to give you the gift of salvation through Christ, you cannot lose your salvation. Even though you might stumble in your faith and make mistakes, the Holy Spirit’s seal on your heart can’t be invalidated or wiped out.
Sanctification through the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit makes us more like Jesus over time
- Sanctification: belief that those who are justified by faith in Jesus are continually being made more holy through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s blood doesn’t just redeem us for what we’ve done in the past. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, true faith in Jesus reshapes our hearts to better match the heart of Jesus. This continual process of being made more holy is called sanctification.
It is impossible for holy faith to be unfruitful. After all, we aren’t talking about an empty faith. We’re talking about what Scripture calls “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). This faith moves people to do by themselves the works that God has commanded in the Word.
Becoming more like Jesus doesn’t mean we can be our own salvation. We still sin. And even a tiny speck of human selfishness, corruption, jealousy, or pride would disqualify a work from being worthy of salvation in God’s eyes (Belgic Confession, Article 24).
The body of Christ
The church is Christ’s body on earth
The Christian church “is a gathering of persons chosen in Christ through the Holy Spirit to profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in order to embody God’s intentions for the world” (Book of Church Order, Preamble). Scripture calls the church “the body of Christ’ and calls Christ our head. The church is faithful in its call when “it participates in mission, in calling all persons to life in Christ, and in proclaiming God’s promise and commands to all the world” (Preamble).
The marks of the “true church”
The church is under the authority of Jesus Christ, who unites believers to himself and to each other. The church goes wrong when it “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.”
Historically, the church has been characterized by three “marks”:
- It proclaims the gospel (Belgic Confession, Article 29)
- It administers the sacraments as Christ instituted them (Belgic Confession, Article 29)
- It practices discipline when members are not living out their faith (Belgic Confession, Article 29)
A fourth characteristic of the church, unity, is worth including here. It’s not identified among the classical Reformation marks of the church, but it is captured in the Nicene Creed and elaborated upon in the Belhar Confession. That characteristic is that the church is united by Christ with God and each other (Belhar Confession, Point 2)
Proclamation of the gospel
The church is called to embody the gospel of Jesus in Word and deed
The gospel promises that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). The church is called to proclaim this gospel promise to all nations and people without discrimination (Canons of Dort, Main Point 2, Article 5). It’s through the “preaching of the holy gospel” that the “Holy Spirit produces [faith] in our hearts” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65).
The Belhar Confession says, “The church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
In a world full of injustice and hate, one way we bear witness to the gospel is to join God in standing for peace and justice. While redemption has an eternal quality, God also cares about the immediate needs of people: “God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry. … God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly” (Belhar Confession, Point 4). Because of that, Reformed Christians believe that “the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Belhar Confession, Point 4).
The sacraments are signs and seals of God’s heavenly promises
- Sacraments: practices instituted by Christ as signs and seals of God’s promises in the gospel.
“Sacraments are visible, holy signs and seals” instituted by Jesus to help us understand the promise of the gospel and to seal its promise in us (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 66). They allow us to experience with our external senses what we hear in God’s Word and feel the Spirit do in our hearts.
In this way, the sacraments help us focus on the truth at the heart of our faith: “the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 67).
There are two sacraments in the Reformed church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
- “Christ has commanded that all those who belong to him be baptized with pure water ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’” (Belgic Confession, Article 34). Baptism signifies that the blood of Christ washes our souls, just as water washes away the dirt of the body. We baptize both infants and adults because both are part of “God’s covenant and are his people” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 74).
The Lord's Supper
- At the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus broke bread and said, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). After supper, he took the cup and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). As we eat the bread and drink from the cup of communion, we remember Christ’s true body and blood, which we receive into our souls by faith.
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