by Barry York
Many people throughout our region are accustomed to the title “Presbyterian” in our name. This refers to the manner in which our church is governed -- by elders or presbyters.
However, fewer understand what a “Reformed” Presbyterian is, or what a person means when they call themselves reformed. The word “reformed” makes references to a time in the 16th and 17th centuries known as the Protestant Reformation. This word refers both to the history of this time as well as the theology or teaching rediscovered by the church concerning Jesus Christ. One of the cardinal doctrines recovered during this period was the teaching of “justification by faith alone.” This means only faith in Christ apart from human works is the way a person can be seen as righteous in God’s eyes. So important was this truth that one of the leading reformers, Martin Luther, stated “justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls.”
Being reformed or Biblical, then, means Living by Faith Alone in Jesus for our Right-standing with God.
Is “justification by faith alone” really that important?
Yes! So concerned were some about the current state of the church in America and the loss of this truth that a group of influential leaders from evangelical churches and institutions gathered together and produced a statement called The Cambridge Declaration. In this document these leaders boldly state:
Today this article [justification by faith alone] is often ignored, distorted, or sometimes even denied by leaders scholars, and pastors who claim to be evangelical ...The marketing orientation in many churches is…erasing the distinction between the Biblical Word and the world, robbing Christ’s cross of its offense, and reducing Christian faith to the principles and methods which bring success to secular corporations. While the theology of the cross may be believed, these movements are actually emptying it of its meaning.
How is the theology of the cross emptied of its meaning?
Legalism and lawlessness have always been enemies of the true gospel. Note how they are seen in the following two “equations,” and then understand the true gospel as represented by the third.
1. FAITH + WORKS = JUSTIFICATION
Whether it be the Pharisees and Judaizers of the Early Church, the Roman Catholics of the medieval period, or those today who so often trust in their own abilities or religious experiences to please God, there have always been those who think they must ADD something to their faith in Christ. This is legalism, which is a false gospel that will not save those who believe it (Romans 4:2, 3; Galatians 3:2,3).
2. FAITH = JUSTIFICATION - WORKS
On the other hand, many in evangelical circles today are so blinded by revivalism methods and shallow teaching they think responding to an alter call or saying a certain prayer is what saves them! Thus they believe that GOOD WORKS play no role is salvation whatsoever. The staggering rate of divorce, immorality, and even homosexuality found today among professing Christians shows many believe in lawlessness, another false gospel that does not save (I John 1:6-7; Jude 3-4).
3. FAITH = JUSTIFICATION + WORKS
The Biblical Gospel stresses faith alone in the work of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is what makes a person JUST. Living faith in Christ is not human-produced emotion that flares up in a moment, resulting in a decision for Him but then refuses to live by His commands. Rather, it is a God-given and eternal gift, resulting in a person embracing Christ and a lifetime of obedience by dying to self and living for Him (John 14:15; James 2:17). Good works are then a result of our being justified by faith, not a means of our justification.
This is the Gospel that saves – the Gospel of Jesus Christ!