Lecture 1, Introduction:

Liberal, Catholic, Dispensational, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Reformed… with so many different theologies out there, where do you start? Beginning this series about Reformed Theology, Dr. Sproul examines distinctive aspects of Reformed Theology which set it apart from the many theologies that have developed before and after the Protestant Reformation.

Message Transcript

A few years ago, a professor from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Dr. David Wells, published a book that fell like a bombshell on the playground of the nation’s theologians. The name of the book was No Place for Truth, and it had a significant subtitle: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? In this book that caused quite a stir in the evangelical world, Dr. Wells outlined his concern for the demise of confessional theology in the life of the church today.

The Disappearance of Theology

I’d like to begin our series by reading a brief comment from that book by Dr. Wells. He makes this statement:

The disappearance of theology from the life of the church, and the orchestration of that disappearance by some of its leaders, is hard to miss today, but oddly enough, not easy to prove. It is hard to miss in the evangelical world—in the vacuous worship that is so prevalent, for example, in the shift from God to the self as the central focus of faith, in the psychologized preaching that follows this shift, in the erosion of its conviction, in its strident pragmatism, in its inability to think incisively about the culture, and in its reveling in the irrational.

I recently attended a meeting in Philadelphia of the board of an organization known by the acronym ACE, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It was brought together in the first place largely through the stimulus provided by Dr. Wells’ book, for this group is concerned to help call the church back to its confessional foundation, understanding that Christianity has a theology.

The purpose of this series we’re beginning today is to give an overview of that theology called Reformed theology, as distinguished from other branches of historic Christianity. We won’t have the time or the opportunity to go into all of the details of Reformed theology, but I want to give a sort of compendium, an introduction to the main ideas that we find in Reformed theology.

Religion and Theology

The first thing I want to say is that Reformed theology is a theology. I realize that sounds rather redundant, but I want to make this distinction clear: there is a difference between religion and theology.

One of my favorite illustrations of this distinction comes from a personal experience that I had several years ago when I was invited by the faculty and administration of a Christian college in the Midwest. They were without a president at the time. As a result, the school was going through a period of self-evaluation. They asked me to come and address the faculty on the subject, “What is a Christian college?”

When I appeared on the campus, the dean greeted me and gave me the Cook’s tour of the facilities. As we were going through the faculty office building, I noticed one of the office doors had the name Department of Religion stenciled on the door. I didn’t say anything; I just filed it in the back of my mind.

Later on that evening as I addressed the faculty on the question, “What is a Christian college?” before I began my message, I asked them a question. I said: “I noticed this afternoon that you have at this institution a Department of Religion. Has this department always been called the Department of Religion?”

There was an elderly professor in the back of the room who raised his hand and said: “No, it used to be called the Department of Theology. We changed it about 30 years ago to the Department of Religion.” I asked, “Well, why did you change it?” He didn’t know. I asked the rest of the faculty, and they began to guess why they changed it. They said, “Maybe to make it easier for our students to transfer their academic credits from our institution to other universities,” and so on.

I took off on that point to address the question, “What is a Christian college?” I reminded my colleagues that evening that there is a profound difference between the study of religion and the study of theology.

Two Approaches to the Question of Faith

For those who are watching this presentation, I have put on my blackboard a brief diagram where I distinguish between two approaches to the question of faith. One I call “God-centered,” and the other I call “man-centered.”

The Queen of the Sciences

The illustration that I use here has a circle with the word theology in it and a line coming underneath it to a sub-circle, which says anthropology. The purpose of my diagram is to show that in a God-centered approach to faith, the study of humanity, or the science of anthropology, is subsumed under the science of theology.

This reflects something of the way in which university courses were structured in the Middle Ages when it was said that theology was “the queen of the sciences.” The idea was that all other disciplines in education are subsumed under the search for ultimate truth, which is found in the study of the nature and character of God. It assumed that the study of humanity was always to be pursued in light of our understanding of God. Since man is created by God and we are the image-bearers of God, in order to have a proper understanding of what it means to be human, we have to first study the prototype rather than looking at the reflection.

The Study of Human Behavior

The other diagram I have illustrates the man-centered approach to faith. It is indicated by a circle that reads anthropology, then under that is a smaller circle that says religion. If we go to secular universities today and study religion, usually that study will take place in the context of the Department of Sociology or Anthropology.

The difference is this: the study of theology is the study of God Himself first and foremost, while the study of religion is the study of a particular type of human behavior.

A Theology, Not a Religion

We notice that there are all kinds of religions in the world, and when people are involved in religion, they’re involved in certain characteristic things like prayer, worship, sacrifice, singing, devotions, and so on, all of which belong to the trappings of human religions. When we study religion from a human perspective, we are examining how people who have certain beliefs about the supernatural behave in their personal lives and in their cultic lives.

But when I say at the outset that Reformed theology is a theology, not a religion, I mean that it is not simply a way of behaving that we can determine by studying the affairs of men. Rather, it is a belief system that is an entire life and worldview with God at the center.

Incurably Religious

We live in a culture that has certain axioms and adages that are popular in the nomenclature of the day. For example, you’ve heard it said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” This idea communicates that God is really concerned that we be religious. It doesn’t matter what the religion is, as long as we’re sincerely religious.

That idea is on a collision course with biblical Christianity because the Bible acknowledges that man is incurably religious, he’s homo religiosus. It also acknowledges that wherever we look in the world, we find all kinds of manifestations of religion.

When the Jewish people were called by God, consecrated, and set apart to be a holy nation, they were not the only religious people in the world. All the nations around them had their peculiar religions. But when God made His covenant with His people and called them to be holy and different, He made certain things absolutely clear at the beginning of His law. The first thing was, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Ex. 20:3). The second was, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image” (Ex. 20:4).

At the very beginning of the Old Testament covenant at Sinai was an emphasis on faith that was to be different from other religions, a faith that would be focused on the character of God Himself. But we know what happened very early in the history of Israel in the Old Testament.

Noise in the Camp

We had a conference in Orlando on the essentials of the Christian faith where I called attention to an incident recorded for us in the 32nd chapter of the book of Exodus. I’ll read part of this episode to you, beginning at verse 17: “Now when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, ‘There is a noise of war in the camp. It is not the noise of the shout of victory, nor the noise of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear’” (Ex. 32:17–18).

Imagine this scenario. Moses is just returning from Mt. Sinai. He has been alone with God, conversing with God, as it were, face to face. When he comes down from the mountain, he meets Joshua. Joshua comes to Moses and says, “I hear this loud noise coming from the camp.”

Joshua’s first instinct was to guess that there was some kind of war going on because you don’t hear this kind of whooping and hollering and shouting from a mass of people except on the field of combat. But as he drew closer, he said: “Wait a minute. It’s not the sound of victory. It’s not the sound of defeat. It’s the sound of singing that I hear.”

He realized that he was approaching the whole assembly of the people of Israel as they were gathered for religious observation, singing lustily in celebration of their religion. But it was a celebration that centered on a golden calf—a golden calf that the people had begged Aaron the high priest to make for them so that they could have a god like all of the other nations—a god that was tangible, a god they could see, a god that was contemporary, a god that was relevant, a god they could get excited about. And the first high priest, Aaron, consecrated by God Himself, acceded to these demands from the people and built them a golden calf.

An Impotent Substitute

While this was going on, Moses was on Sinai in a relationship with God. God knew what was happening at the foot of the mountain, but Moses didn’t. Listen to what God says to Moses beginning in verse 7:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. And they have made themselves a molded calf and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘This is your god, oh Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and I will consume them” (Ex. 32:7–10).

The people were engaged in religion, but the religion they were celebrating was a religion that had a theology of this world. It was a theology that distorted and corrupted the very character of God, that moved away from the true and honorable worship of God to the worship of creaturely, man-made things.

God said to Moses: “Look at this. They’re worshiping this calf and saying, ‘This is the god who brought us out of the land of Egypt,’ as if that calf made by their own hands could have delivered them from anything.”

They prayed to the calf. They offered worship and sacrifices to the calf. But the calf was deaf and dumb. It couldn’t see anything, and it couldn’t do anything. It was not omnipotent but impotent. It was a substitute for the living God.

In the first chapter of Romans, the Apostle Paul says that God has revealed Himself through the things that are made so clearly and so manifestly that everyone in this world knows the eternal power and deity of God. Yet, the primary sin of the human race is to take that knowledge of God and push it down, to suppress the truth and hold it in unrighteousness, and then exchange that truth for a lie and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18–25). The exchange is between the incorruptible, transcendent, holy God who is, and the corruption of creaturely things.

In other words, the most basic sin that we, not just pagans in far-off aborigine lands or primitive tribes, commit is the besetting sin of idolatry. Idolatry involves religion, but even the Christian religion can be idolatrous when we strip God of His true attributes and place something other than God Himself at the center of our worship.

Knowledge That Informs Life

If we’re going to look at the essence of Reformed theology, I have to say that the strictest focus of Reformed theology is on theology, the knowledge of the true God.

We live in a day when people say that theology doesn’t matter. This is what David Wells was decrying in his book, No Place for Truth. What counts is feeling good, being ministered to in our psychological needs, and having a place where we can feel the warmth of fellowship and have a sense of belonging and relevance. Theology is something that divides and stirs up controversy and debates. “We don’t need doctrine,” we are told, “We need life.”

At the heart of Reformed theology is the affirmation that theology is life because theology is the knowledge of God. And no more important knowledge exists to inform our lives than the knowledge of God.

This is what the Protestant Reformation was all about. There were scandals in the priesthood. There were problems of immorality both among the Roman Catholic people and among the Protestant people. Luther at that time said, “Erasmus attacked the Pope in his belly; I’ve attacked him in his doctrine.” Luther even admitted to this effect: “We find scandalous behavior among our own people. But what we’re trying to do first is come to a sound understanding of God, because our lives will never be reformed and brought into conformity to Christ until we first have a clear understanding of the original model of true humanity that is found in Christ. And that’s a matter of theology.”

So, we start with the clear acknowledgment that the Reformed faith is a theology, a theology that permeates the whole structure.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.