Pastor John, here’s a question we get with some regularity now, from people who have no idea what we’re talking about. Give us a simple definition or description of “Reformed theology” or this thing called “Calvinism” that we talk about so often on the podcast?
Here is what I ordinarily mean when I use the term “Reformed theology” or “Calvinism.” Our listeners should understand that others may want to give a lot fuller or more precise meaning. So, don’t be surprised if you hear someone say: Piper’s definition is way too narrow. They are right in one sense. Historically, Reformed theology would include everything you read in a big systematic theology written by a Reformed theologian.
So, that is Reformed theology. Which is why certain Reformed folks get all uptight if you just give it a little teeny definition. I am totally okay with that and affirm that. But I think what people want to know, and what I mean, is: What are some of the distinctives that you are talking about when you use this phrase? So here is what I mean.
“God’s glory is the goal of all things, and his freedom and his sovereignty are essential to his deity.”
Reformed theology, as I mean it, is a view of God and his way of working in the world that grows, like a tree with lots of branches, out of a deep conviction that God’s glory is the goal of all things and that his freedom and his sovereignty are essential to his deity. And, because he is free and sovereign and glorious, he doesn’t need to be served by anyone to meet his needs. Therefore, he is gloriously free to be gracious to us. That’s it in a nutshell.
Let’s take those one at a time and put texts underneath them. The glory of God is the supreme theme of Reformed theology. Isaiah 48:9–11 says, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise” — God says — “I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
I don’t think there is a more God-exalting passage in the Bible than Isaiah 48:9–11. So, the glory of God from creation to consummation is the supreme value that God has in the world, and he is pursuing it in all that he does. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory,” God says in Isaiah 43:6–7. And in doing this, in pursuing his glory, in all that he does — which is the theme at the center of Reformed theology — he is totally free and sovereign. That is, he is not decisively constrained or controlled by any force from outside himself. He can overcome every obstacle to his purposes and do everything he pleases.
“God is not decisively constrained or controlled by any force from outside himself.”
Here is a text or two on his freedom. Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” — totally free. Or Romans 9:15: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” A statement like that is designed to help us embrace the freedom of God. He does what he pleases. And he does it with absolute sovereignty. And what I mean by that is Isaiah 46:9–10: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying,” — and here it comes — “‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
Nothing can stop him. He is sovereign. Anything that looks like an obstacle in the way, if he lets it remain an obstacle, he is just permitting it. He could go over it any time he wanted and, therefore, he is sovereign over it. So, he has no needs and therefore, he overflows in free grace to whom he pleases. Acts 17:25 says that God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives” — and gives and gives — “to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God is a bountiful God, because he is not a needy God — and he is not a needy God because he is infinitely glorious and free and sovereign.
The Joy and Beauty of Calvinism
Those are the roots of God’s action in creation and history. Which means that, when it comes to saving sinners — and here is where we get down to the nitty-gritty, just briefly — when it comes to saving sinners, God is free and sovereign in the way he does it. We are dead. I, John Piper, was dead in my trespasses and my sins. I was unable to change my life. I did not love God. I did not trust God. I did not want God. I found God boring. And, therefore, I was enslaved to my own sin. God was not beautiful and he wasn’t satisfying, and that is the condition of everybody until God moves.
And so, Reformed theology says: The only solution to this hopeless condition that I was in and that everybody is in, is that God is sovereign and by his free grace overcomes our blindness. He raises us from the dead. He gives us eyes to see the beauty of Christ so that we freely and joyfully embrace him as our supreme treasure. For example, 2 Corinthians 4:6 says: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’” — way back there in creation — “has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” That is how I got saved. My heart was dark. It was dead. It was rebellious. It had all the wrong preferences. And God said: Let there be gospel light in John Piper’s heart. And by a miracle, in a moment, I saw Christ differently. He was compellingly true and beautiful and satisfying — and I was saved.
“Only the sovereign grace of God can set us free so that we embrace Christ as our supreme Treasure.”
The Bible calls me now a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) so that Ephesians 2:8–9 is true: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” or of anything we did. So, faith is a gift. We don’t create it with our free will.
Here is where it gets controversial — and I am just going to close with this statement — We don’t create it. We don’t create faith with our free will. If left to our free will, we will all choose the pleasures of the creation over the beauty of the Creator. Our free will is a slave to sin. Just read Romans 6:16–17 and you will see that we were enslaved to sin, enslaved to unrighteousness. Only the sovereign grace of God can set us free so that we see Christ for who he really is and embrace him as our supreme treasure. That is what I mean by Reformed theology.