Reformed theology includes a system of belief that traces its roots back to the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago. It also contains many of the doctrines taught by Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries.

A brief history

The Reformation was an extensive religious revolt against the abuses and authoritarian control of the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers included Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland, and John Calvin in France. These men protested the unbiblical practices of the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged a return to sound biblical doctrine. The triggering event of the Protestant Reformation is generally considered Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church on 31 October 1517.

The Theses focused on sin and forgiveness, mainly how people were to seek pardon and salvation. They protested against the Roman church and how it was selling forgiveness and pardon through indulgencies (A letter of indulgence was given in exchange for a monetary gift or a charitable deed). Indulgences often led people into poverty and reduced the amount of charity people could do. People experiencing poverty, Luther said, should be helped.

A copy of the Ninety-five Theses was sent to Rome, and efforts began to convince Luther to change his tune, but he refused to keep silent.  In 1521, Pope Leo X formally excommunicated Luther from the Catholic Church. The Reformers, their followers and successors, formed a theology that they believed better represented the original intention of scripture and Jesus for his church.

Reformed theology

Reformed theology is not a new belief system but seeks to continue apostolic doctrine. In summary, reformed theology holds to:

  • The authority of Scripture.
  • The sovereignty of God.
  • Salvation by grace through Jesus Christ.
  • The necessity of evangelism.

Reformed theology is also called Covenant theology, Calvinism, the Doctrines of Grace, or Augustinian theology. It is alive and well in Reformed Churches, some Presbyterian churches, some Baptist churches, Lutheran Churches, and the Acts 29 movement, a global family of church-planting churches that adheres to Calvinist theology.

Recognising the good

There is much in reformed theology that is good. I appreciate the high regard for scripture, the focus on Jesus and salvation, and the desire for others to experience the gospel. I acknowledge that there are various streams of reformed theology and that not all reformed theologians hold to all its tenants of the faith.

In addressing my concerns about reformed theology, I am not critical of individuals or churches. I acknowledge that people who hold to reformed theology love Jesus and are part of the Christian family. Christians have and do differ on all sorts of doctrines. I appreciate the words of 17th Century Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Having said that here are my chief concerns with reformed theology:

* Reformed theology denies people’s free will

Augustine wrote, “By Adam’s transgression, the freedom of the human will has been completely lost … we have lost the free will to love God.” Martin Luther said, “For if man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily?” I believe reformed theology has an unhealthy emphasis on sin and people’s lack of free will not to sin. Their doctrine of total depravity states that human nature is thoroughly corrupt and sinful due to the fall.

While I believe the Bible teaches that “all have sinned” and that no one is righteous outside of God’s grace, we witness human beings exercising their free will to do good. Most people are NOT depraved. Scripture also attests to people’s inherent goodness. The Bible starts at Genesis One, not Genesis Three, with people created in God’s good image. While the image has been marred, it has not been destroyed.

Reformed theology denies personal accountability

The blame for every person’s sinfulness is placed on Adam. John Calvin noted, “Adam drew all his posterity with himself, by his fall, into eternal damnation.” Whether we like it or not, we’re all going to hell, and it’s all Adam’s fault. Reformed theology buys into the blame game of Genesis Three – Adam blamed God and “that woman”. Eve blamed the snake, which didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Reformed theology has a harmful obsession with original sin. Scripture teaches that each person is responsible to account for their sins.

Reformed theology denies Christ died for everyone

Aussie evangelist Joshua Williamson said, “If Christ died for everyone, everyone would be saved.” And yet, the New Testament is replete with verses that use words like EVERYONE and ALL. The New Testament affirms that Christ died for all people. God’s boundless atonement does not make salvation automatic but available for everyone. **

Reformed theology teaches an unhealthy view of predestination

There are some horrific statements made by reformed thinkers about the destiny of the “unsaved”. Consider John Calvin, “not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing.” Let that sink in. Author Alan Kurschner said, “God desires that his people are saved. He does not desire that every single individual who has ever lived live in glory with him forever. If that were the case, we have an incompetent, unhappy, and impotent God.”

Erwin Lutzer (former Senior Pastor Moody Bible Church, Chicago) said, “The revealed will was that all men be saved, but the hidden will was that the greater part of mankind be damned.” Seriously? Does God have a hidden will? And John MacArthur comments: “[God’s] patience is not so He can save all of them, but so that He can receive all of His own …” The rest be dammed.

Have you noticed that people who say these things are always in the “saved” category? How easily we condemn people who are not us. Contrast the above quotes with Jesus, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The apostle Paul wrote, For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive.

For in-depth teaching on Romans 9:12-21 and why I believe those who embrace reformed theology misinterpret these verses, listen to my podcast on predestination.

Reformed theology pushes the sovereignty of God too far

Martin Luther believed, “God worketh all things in all men, even wickedness in the wicked …” John Calvin stated, “Whatever things are done wrongly and unjustly by man, these very things are the right and just works of God.” It reminds me of the meme, “You’re telling me that when God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit that he really wanted them to?”

While it is true that, because of free will and the laws of nature, God created the potential for bad things to happen in the world, to say that God works wickedness in the wicked is to deny the heart of God, who is LOVE and GOODNESS. *** James is especially concerned that we’re not misled: Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Reformed churches diminish the role of women

Reformed churches are invariably complementarian, believing that men and women are equal but different. Valid, except in these churches, men are usually more equal than women, to misquote George Orwell.

Complementarianism holds to exclusively male leadership in the church and home, and women should not have church leadership roles that involve teaching or authority over men. Women are expected to support and submit to male authority. I recently saw a Facebook post where a pastor shared his joy about a retreat with his fellow pastors (all men) and thanked the wives for “holding the fort”. I have written about complementarian elsewhere and recorded a podcast outlining my views that complementarianism does an injustice to scripture and women.

For these reasons, I believe Reformed Theology could do well to experience another Reformation.


* Lev. 18:29; Deut. 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; 2 Chron. 25:4; Eze. 18:2-6; Eze. 18:20; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:5-6; Rom. 14:12; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Cor. 11:15; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 20:11-12; Rev. 22:12.

** Heb. 2:9; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Jn. 2:2, Jn. 3:14-17; 12:46; Acts 10:43; Rom. 10:11; Rev. 22:17, Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Pet. 2:1.

*** Gen. 1:31; 6:5-6; 1 Sam. 15:22; Jer. 19:5, 32:35; Isa. 5:4; Zeph. 3:5; Ecc. 7:29; Matt. 6:10; Lk. 7:30; 1 Cor. 14:33; Heb. 1:9; James 1:13; 1 John 1:5

I received an email a short while ago from a member of Bayside Church in which he expressed his concerns about comments made by “so-called Christian friends” about matters of theology that were fundamental to his Christian faith.

He told me the following story:

“A very good friend of mine told me that she does not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and that translation errors in the Bible have resulted in us all believing something that isn’t true.

“This friend has a Theology degree and is quite dogmatic in her beliefs (or lack thereof). She claims that the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 refers to a “young woman”, not a “virgin”. Apparently, an early translation of the Hebrew into Greek took the Hebrew word ‘almah,’ meaning young woman, and rendered it ‘Parthenos’ in the Greek, which means virgin.

“She has told me that the matter of the virgin birth is a non-issue to her as she says that Jesus’ divinity is evidenced in His humanity. In my view, if we deny the virgin birth, we diminish who Jesus is. If He is not born of a virgin (and therefore by a divine miracle of God), he cannot be fully man and fully God, but just fully man.

“As so much in the Christian Church is being watered down nowadays, I am finding it increasingly difficult to respond to questions such as these. I’d be very keen to know your views on the virgin birth and whether or not this has ‘changed’ in 21st-century theology.”

I love questions like this as they cause me to search the Scriptures for answers. Here’s my reply:

Your friend is partly right, but I don’t agree with her conclusions.

Understanding Context

It’s important to remember that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) had meaning to their original recipients. Something that is invariably overlooked today, sadly.

I encourage you to read Isaiah 7:1-17 and note its context. Isaiah the prophet is sent to reassure King Ahaz that the attack on Jerusalem (by Aram and Ephraim) won’t succeed. Ahaz is encouraged to ask for a sign from God to confirm this, but Ahaz is reluctant to do so. So, Isaiah gives him a sign anyway, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This child would be born and, “before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (verse 16). This would have been a very encouraging message for Ahaz.

Now, the word translated virgin (almah) can mean “young woman or virgin”. In Isaiah’s prophecy, “young woman” is probably correct. It’s likely that Ahaz knows who this young pregnant woman is (it’s possibly Isaiah’s wife, Cf. Isaiah 8:3). So, basically, Isaiah is saying to Ahaz, “as you know, my wife is pregnant and before our baby knows the difference between right and wrong, the lands of those who threatened you will be utterly destroyed. Be encouraged!”

Thus, the baby is a sign that “God is with us” (Immanuel) and will save us from our enemies.

Understanding Greek

Now, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint (LXX), because it was translated by seventy scholars (between the 3rd Century and 132 BC when it was completed), they rendered the Hebrew word almah as parthenos (Greek) which refers to a young woman (or man) who has never had sexual intercourse (a virgin). I don’t know why they chose this word, but they did, and the New Testament writers picked it up and applied it to Jesus, the Messiah, who was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:18-25; Galatians 4:4-5).

Unlike Isaiah’s sign for Ahaz, this sign from God was to be for the whole world, and not just Jerusalem. And this time the sign was not about a country being delivered from an aggressor but rather people being rescued from their sins. It’s a powerful analogy which lays at the very heart of the Christian faith.

Understanding Sin

I totally agree with you about the importance of the virgin birth. I believe we need to be careful about fiddling with God’s truth, especially the truths that affect a person’s salvation. If Jesus isn’t 100% divine and 100% human, he could not be our Saviour because he wouldn’t be sinless. If that were the case, he would have had to die for his own sins and not ours.

And so, I believe we should boldly proclaim:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit

      and born of the Virgin Mary.

      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,

      was crucified, died, and was buried;

      he descended to hell.

      The third day he rose again from the dead.

      He ascended to heaven

      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.

      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.


But the purpose of theology is not just knowing about God and truth but knowing how God feels about and interacts with people.  Over the years I have met many people who know far more theology than me.  They are able to argue their case convincingly on any theological subject.  They cross every “T” and dot every “I”.  But something is missing.  These same people are often harsh and unbending and they tend to lack grace.  They put theology before people.  Jesus turned this around – that’s why he was always in trouble with the religious authorities of his day.

In John chapter 5,  Jesus comes across a man who had been an invalid for 37 years.  Jesus healed him telling him “get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”  It should have been a day of great rejoicing but those who saw theology as more important than people said, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat." What a bizarre response to a man who had just been healed of a 37-year disability.

Jesus was scathing of such people.  On one occasion he said to them, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt 23:23-24).

On another occasion Jesus and his disciples were eating with “tax collectors and sinners.”  These were the most shunned people by the theologians of the day.  In fact “sinners” were people who deliberately and persistently transgressed the requirements of the law.  The religious leaders criticised Jesus for eating with such people.  In response to this Jesus gave them some homework to do, “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”  A few chapters later in Matthew 12 these same theologians are once again criticising Jesus and his followers.  Jesus responded, “If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.”  They hadn’t done their homework; they hadn’t learned to put people before theology.

And this has been a sad reality through much of church history.  For hundreds of years many Christians, Jews and Muslims suffered at the hands of various Roman Catholic Popes.  It’s estimated that somewhere around 100 million people died during these times.  Those who were viewed at heretics were tortured, had property confiscated, received lengthy secret imprisonment, secret trials, and death by burning. The inquisitions and crusades are a massive blot on church history and amongst some of the worst examples of those who put theology before people.

But it wasn’t just Roman Catholics who were guilty of this.  Many of the Protestant Reformers, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, called for corporal and capital punishment on those they deemed as heretics as well as against Jews.

Over the centuries theology has been used to justify racial discrimination, the slave trade, persecution of scientists, the subservience of non-white people, the subjugation of women, the prohibition of inter-racial marriages, the persecution of non-heterosexual people and the demonising of refugees and asylum seekers.

Just mentioning some of these things of course will unleash a stream of unkind and unchristian emails and blogs from those who are still guilty of putting theology before people, before compassion, before mercy.  The religious fundamentalists still haven’t done the homework; still haven’t learned the lesson – and they probably never will.