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June 22, 2023

Speaking with a Reformed Accent

C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity has inspired many millions of readers with its stellar presentation of the Christian faith. Lewis was a master of deep simplicity, a quality of his writing that readers have found revealing and delightful. He often launched out from plain facts of human experience: “Everyone has heard people quarreling.”  That’s how the book begins. It moves on with tight reasoning and soaring imagination to show how the Christian faith—as fantastic as it might initially seem to a skeptic like Lewis himself—is in the end powerfully compelling.

Borrowing a phrase from the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, Lewis calls his presentation of the faith “mere” Christianity. We can imagine a context in which this adjective becomes clear. A liberal Christian pastor says to a more traditional pastor, “I simply can’t preach Jesus’ physical resurrection to a modern congregation!” The traditional pastor says, “Sorry to say what’s obvious, but the resurrection isn’t optional. It’s mere Christianity!” 

Lewis knew, of course, that there are various forms of Christianity—Lutheran, Baptist, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and so on. Each has a different “take” on the faith: they emphasize some parts of it more than others. For example, while most Christians say infants of believers should be baptized to show they belong to Jesus Christ, a significant minority maintains that only believers themselves should receive the sacrament. Some Christians warn that the call to perform good works is a risky lurch toward self-justification while others claim that doing good works is an essential validation of one’s faith. Catholics say that the church needs special priests, distinct from ordinary believers, but Protestants say that those ordinary believers are themselves the true priests. And yet, said Lewis, there remains a core Christianity that persists through these various patterns of emphasis.

Suppose we agree with Lewis. If we do, I think we may characterize the differing patterns of emphasis as “speaking with an accent.” Your friend who speaks English with a French accent may compliment the excellent service during a restaurant meal you share, but her pronunciation of “service” sounds more like “sair-VEESE.” You accent the first syllable; she accents the second.

Many of us speak mere Christianity with a Reformed accent. Following such great reformers as John Calvin and John Knox, we do practice mainstream Christianity. We are not cultists. But we have our own pattern of emphases. When we preach, teach, or speak the faith we sound more like Calvin than like Martin Luther or Thomas Aquinas.

For example, Reformed Christians believe that the law of God is not only (1) a standard we cannot meet and therefore a motive to confess our transgressions and shortcomings. It’s not only (2) the basis of criminal laws that prohibit people from committing murder or theft. It’s also (3) an owner’s manual that tells us how to live flourishing lives out of gratitude. And it can function this way in worship. Suppose the service includes an assurance of pardon. Following it, the worship leader might say something like, “As God’s cherished and forgiven children, let us now live in love for God above all and for our neighbors as ourselves.”  

Calvin believed that this third use of the law—guiding us in a Godly life—is its principal use.

Another example: when we are in character, Reformed people pray to God with deliberate reverence. This was a point of emphasis for John Calvin. We don’t stroll into God’s presence. We may pray warmly and intimately but not casually. We always remember God’s majesty. We remember that meeting God might be less like meeting Winnie the Pooh and more like getting electrocuted. In worship, praying with reverence may mean pausing for some seconds before beginning a prayer. We let a little silence gather before we presume to break it.  

Third example: total depravity. This is the doctrine that lies behind the “T” in the “Tulip” acronym for the five points of Calvinism laid out in the seventeenth-century confession titled The Canons of Dordt. Millions believe that these five points—total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints—sum up Reformed doctrine. They don’t. John Calvin didn’t himself appear to believe in limited atonement and, in any case, Reformed doctrine is much bigger than the five points.  

But the doctrine of total depravity is surely an authentic teaching of Calvin and a staple of the Reformed tradition—provided it is correctly understood. That unregenerate people are “totally” depraved does not mean that they are as bad as they can be—that, for example, they never keep their promises and always hate their mothers. Not at all. They are creatures of God, made in God’s own image, and they cannot out-sin this created strength and goodness. In addition, God graces them with such gifts as agreeable temperaments, the influence of orderly societies, and virtues in varying degrees.

What “total” depravity means is that corruption extends everywhere. It is total in its scope or breadth, affecting our mind, our will, our loves, our relationships, institutions, family systems, cultural patterns, and so on. Nothing escapes the taint of sin.

In worship, the Reformed doctrine of total depravity lies behind our preaching and teaching that salvation isn’t just about saving souls. It’s also about saving marriages, churches, courts and laws, family and cultural patterns, and so on. If all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed.

Certain other Christians also believe in the third use of the law, in the need for particular reverence in prayer, and in total depravity. Of course. But for Reformed people these are points of emphasis. They are among the things we stress when we speak mere Christianity with a Reformed accent.

This blog begins a monthly series on points of emphasis in the Reformed tradition and on how they show up in worship. Next up: a fuller explanation of the third use of the law.