Brothers and sisters in the Reformed tradition are not our enemies and vital areas of agreement should not be overlooked. Christ alone has done the work for salvation, which we receive by grace alone, through faith alone. We are pursuing holiness today, anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all God’s people will spend eternity together. Reformed writers are helping “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:12). In areas of apologetics and contemporary issues around sexuality, for example, they are speaking articulately and meaningfully. My challenging task in these articles, however, has been highlighting reasons that I do not take the Reformed label.
What About the Covenants?
The introductory article in this series pointed out that “Covenant Theology” is often used as a synonym for Reformed theology. Covenant theology views the Bible’s storyline under three covenants: covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace. The problem is that these covenants are more of a human construct than a Scriptural one. These perceived covenants are not clearly described as such in Scripture, but they get highlighted while the actual covenants of Scripture and their distinctiveness from each other tend to be underemphasized. In this interpretive framework, the Covenant of Grace spans the two testaments of Scripture, including both the gospel of Christ and the law of Moses. This harmonizes with the issues discussed in articles two and three, and is intricately related to the error of amillennialism. I treat this subject briefly, though, because not all Reformed teachers espouse the three covenants as described above. Due to the diversity of opinions about the Bible covenants, I wouldn’t say this is the key dividing line between Reformed and Dispensational teaching.
Thus far we have considered issues at a broad, theological level. While they may appear at first blush as being merely academic, that is not so. Consequences of these beliefs do filter down into how we view and fulfill our mission in the world. There are further practical differences in relation to how a local church functions.
Practices in the Local Church
We should be thankful that Reformed teachers rightly emphasize the need to be a part of a local church and to be committed within it. But they also come to Scripture with different convictions related to the local church, and these should not be passed over as trivial matters. All of Scripture’s teaching is worth carrying out in faithful obedience.
While many places recognize the value and Scriptural precedent for multiple elders, and that “elder” and “pastor/shepherd” refer to the same person in the New Testament, it is still the common practice of Reformed churches to have one individual leader identified as the Pastor or Senior Pastor. This runs counter to the New Testament’s model of a mature church. On the positive side, Reformed pastors take their responsibility in preaching very seriously. One of the Reformation leaders, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), revolutionized the pulpit in his day by his expository preaching through the New Testament in Zurich. Many Reformed pastors today continue to exemplify good preaching – that is nothing to criticize, and many of us admittedly have much room for improvement. And while preaching is not to be limited to one brother in the local church, neither is it to be the activity of every brother. 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, for example, make clear that Christians have different roles in the church. The various ministries are not to be filled in the haphazard way of just taking turns. Many assemblies are in great need of quality teaching. If the only preaching the flock is regularly exposed to is fifteen or twenty minutes after the Lord’s Supper, the saints are likely suffering malnourishment as a result.
But take care that the sermon is not worshiped and the preacher is not idolized. While good preaching can certainly draw out our hearts to Christ, there is nothing like a weekly hour for the Lord’s Supper, with Christ-centred prayer and songs of worship, from grateful hearts full of devotion to the Lord. The popular Reformed mindset, however, is expressed in these words: “Prayer during corporate worship is the potatoes to the steak of the preached Word.” It is likely that this focus on the sermon originated partly as an overreaction – for some Reformers, the zeal to correct Roman Catholicism’s error of the Mass led them to replace the altar with the pulpit. The memorial supper to the Lord became, for many, an occasional thing. Hence these comments heralding the practice of the Puritans as a pattern for churches today: “The sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship…. Both minister and congregation should recognize that their Sunday sermons are the most important and significant events of the week.” My cautionary comments are not intended to minimize the need for good preaching, but to ensure the local church is centred upon the Lord, not the preacher and his sermon.
And if we are truly going to let the name of Christ be preeminent and unifying, denominational names and divisions must also be avoided. Yet many Reformed teachers happily espouse denominationalism. For example, “I would suggest that the time is ripe for a revival of denominational identity among evangelicals”; and denominations “are worthy of our promotion, propagation, and commitment.” To their credit, they are often very willing to transcend denominational lines. And this issue is also a cautionary note for us – assemblies can very easily make the mistake of exhibiting denominational tendencies and a sectarian spirit. But the principle of taking no other name beyond that of our Lord Jesus is valid and worth contending for. Don’t let the name on the building be your identity – “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1Co 1:9).
People who espouse Reformed theology are trained to read the Bible differently, which leads to a misunderstanding of Scripture’s storyline and a misapplication of some of its parts. These articles have outlined five areas of concern with Reformed teaching and practice: 1) Conflating the Church with Israel, and associated errors relating to covenants; 2) Confusing the gospel of grace by bringing the law into sanctification and hedging on eternal security; 3) Going beyond Scripture to uphold Calvinism, and the preeminence given to Calvinistic soteriology; 4) Embracing charismatic practices; 5) Diverging from the New Testament model for local church organization and practice.
None of those are minor areas of doctrine. But as I also hope I have made clear in these articles, that is far from saying nothing good comes from Reformed teachers. I have not been arguing that someone who espouses Reformed theology is necessarily marked by pride, rebellion or greed, as is so often the case with Scripture’s descriptions of false teachers (e.g., 1Ti 6:3-5; Titus 1:10-11; 2Pe 2:1-3). I caution you about quickly applying passages about false teachers to everyone who disagrees with you, particularly if those men are pursuing godliness while living in the public eye. Assailing the men without exposing the weakness in their teaching will often be counterproductive. The modern appeal of Reformed teachers and churches should not be explained away as being due strictly to good music or a professional online presence. Many Reformed teachers have done a good job of recapturing a sense of wonder at the glory and grace of God. This should not be glibly ignored.
But neither should the potential for Reformed theology’s unhealthy influence be ignored. Amidst much truth, seeds of error can also be scattered. It can be subtle and unintentional, so the Christian needs to be discerning and “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
Lastly, remember that this series began with a warning about labels. A local church is not bound together by a framework of systematic theology but by Christ; we do not gather under the label of Dispensationalism but in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. In some ways, “Reformed” has become like a hip brand of Christianity. Its growing prevalence in evangelical Christianity doesn’t make it right or wrong, but resist the urge to jump on a popular bandwagon. Teaching is to be judged by the hallmark of the Reformation itself – Scripture alone. Soli Deo Gloria.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.
 E.g., Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, Mosaic, New.
 Blending the Church with Israel, and making the Law the Christian’s rule of life.
 Amillennialism denies a literal thousand-year future reign of Christ on the earth and the corresponding restoration of national Israel. Augustine popularized the idea that the kingdom is the church and that the millennium is therefore the church age. Reformers didn’t really stray from Augustine’s teaching on this. Thus most covenant theologians present Jesus’ Messianic/Davidic reign as having already begun, instead of identifying it with the coming kingdom.
 John Onwuchekwa, Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 96.
 J.I. Packer in A Quest for Godliness, quoted in his biography by Leland Ryken, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 365.
 Nathan A. Flinn, Why Denominational Identity Still Matters, at TheGospelCoalition.org, Nov 9, 2015.
 Jason Helopoulos, In Praise of Denominations, at TheGospelCoalition.org, Dec 28, 2012.