5 Things The Orthodox Should Know About The Reformed

Inside of a Reformed church

The Reformed tradition is known for central hallmarks and has multiple expressions in churches. While reformed churches can have differences, they come from a similar mold. To help Orthodox Christians dialogue with Calvinists, we have gathered five key things Orthodox Christians need to know about the Reformed.

1. The Reformed hold to the Five Points

Reformed Christians generally hold to the Five Points of Calvinism (or TULIP): Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Eternal Preservation (or Perseverance) of the Saints. All of these points naturally flow within one another. According to the Reformed, man is totally depraved because we inherited Adam’s guilt and a sinful nature from Adam, who is the Federal Head before God of the unregenerate human race. Because of this depravity, God must elect some people to be saved.

Therefore Christ’s saving atonement works only for them. God will call that person to believe. And that person will believe sooner or later. The saved man will never fall away because God has chosen him, Christ died for him, and “God’s call and his gifts are irrevocable” (Romans 8). The Westminster Confession, a primary confessional document for the beliefs of Reformed Christians, says:

They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally, nor finally, fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. This perseverance of the saints depends not on their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father…

WCF 17. 1, 2

2. The Reformed believe in Sola Scriptura

The Reformed believe that God reveals himself in three main ways: the natural world, through Jesus, and through the Bible. It is mainly in the Bible that God speaks to people and gives the testimony of his Son. The Reformed thus believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, or the Bible alone. This essentially means that since the Bible is God’s primary and ordinary mode of revelation to people, it should be followed and interpreted. Practically, other doctrines about Scripture arise from Sola Scriptura:

  • The inspiration of Scripture: Scripture is God-breathed and sufficient for the believer
  • The sufficiency of Scripture: Scripture is final rule of faith for doctrine and practice for the believer
  • The self-interpretation of Scripture: Scripture will interpret itself, using the “clear passages in light of the unclear” hermeneutic, and the individual believer must find out what Scripture says (note the objectivity) and not what Scripture means for me (subjectivity).

Scripture should then regulate all doctrine for the believer, even practice. In short, if something cannot be found in Scripture or deduced from common sense, it is forbidden. Westminster elaborates:

All things of Scripture are not alike plain in themselves…yet those things which are necessary to be known…are so clearly profounded in some place of Scripture or other.

WCF 1.7

3. The Reformed believe in the regulative principle of worship

This is more common in conservative Reformed circles, but this carries over from Sola Scriptura. The idea is that Scripture should regulate public Christian worship, and that whatever is not commanded in Scripture is forbidden. A Reformed church that follows this idea may have worship that looks like this:

  • Opening greeting (usually from an Epistle of St. Paul or a Psalm)
  • Singing of a hymn
  • Reading of the Law (to feel conviction of sin)
  • Silent confession and prayer
  • Rejoicing in forgiveness (another hymn here)
  • Prayer of needs
  • Singing and collection of tithes and offerings
  • Sermon (the bulk of time here—45 minutes is common)
  • Blessing and dismissal
  • Final hymn

The Reformed will support this with Scripture verses and ideas from Scripture. Some churches will apply the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW) more liberally or conservatively than others. Some denominations will have the congregation sing Psalms and hymns, others will include saying the Apostles’ Creed. These differences are minor, but stem from a concern to apply the same principle.

4. The Eucharist is just a symbol

Reformed Protestants here tend to be lumped together with mainstream Evangelicals, who generally take the verse “Do this in memory of me” literally. Evangelicals consider the Lord’s supper as a mere symbol used to commemorate the death of Christ. In Reformed circles, however, the Lord’s Supper is typically more than a memorial. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith:

Worthy receivers outwardly partaking of the visible elements of this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon the benefits of Christ crucified…yet as really, but spiritually.

WCF 29.7

In other words, they believe that no physical change in the bread and wine take place. So, when a believer receives in faith, he spiritually partakes of Christ’s body and blood while only physically receiving bread and wine. If a man were to receive in an unworthy manner, he would be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Because of this belief, Reformed churches often fence the table and not allow those who are members of a visible church to receive. If someone is visiting, some churches will have a card for the person to fill out or have the person talk to the pastor to ensure they are spiritually prepared.

Additionally, some churches do not give Communion every week like most Orthodox churches do. For example, one of our parishioners’ former home church gave Communion only four times per year. Some churches fear their members will not be spiritually prepared to receive Communion weekly.

Keep Reading: Who Can Receive Communion In An Orthodox Church? >>

5. They believe in “true” salvation

Lastly, most Reformed Christians (and Evangelicals) will make a distinction between “true Christians” and “professing Christians”. True Christians are those who have been born again by the Holy Spirit, while professing Christians are those who believe they are true Christians but are not. They may even have some fruits of true Christianity, but are not true Christians. This language often occurs in sermons on “true and false faith”. It is also important to note that for Protestants, a “true believer” will be holding to a personal saving faith in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross in spite of their church position or affiliation. For instance, a Roman Catholic or Orthodox who is a true believer will believe in salvation by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. They will be “Protestant at heart.”

How to dialogue with the Reformed

Now that we know a few things about what the Reformed believe, let’s discuss how to dialogue with them. First, we must make clear that it is impossible to argue someone into belief. Belief is a consent of the will. Ultimately, the best way to dialogue is to start with open-mindedness and asking questions. Ask them what they believe and why, and allow them to explain it to you before you make assumptions. Here are some other things to consider when discussing theology and faith:

  1. Be charitable and humble. “Let everything you do be done in love,” writes St. Paul. We need to not assume things of the other side, try to consider nuance, and avoid the sin of pride.
  2. Know your Bible. Reformed Christians know their Bible backwards and forwards, and so should you.
  3. Begin on their ground. Protestants use an entirely different canon of Scripture. Their Bible has fewer books than ours, and they consider our “extra” books as later additions to justify unbiblical doctrines (i.e. prayer to the saints). Use their canon in discussions, not ours.
  4. Ask questions. If you don’t know what they believe on something, simply ask. This helps get an atmosphere of trust and understanding.
  5. Read. The Reformed are highly intellectual. Study your own faith in books to know what you believe. Orthodox catechisms and books about the faith are common in America today. Studying about the Reformed faith also helps dialogue.
  6. Admit what you don’t know. If you don’t know something, be honest, admit to it, and try to get an answer later.
  7. Know where you agree. Orthodox and Reformed have many things in common, including our high regard for Scripture and the Fathers, and the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation (among other things). Knowing these things helps strengthen kinship and makes the conversation more productive.

Read More: How To Refute Sola Scriptura >>

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11 Responses

    1. Gail,

      Christ is in our midst. We interviewed a Reformed Christian to obtain this information. Which things, specifically, are not true?

  1. The statement on the Eucharist is not accurate. Reformed Christians, unlike most evangelicals, have historically held and confessed in their confessions that when one takes Holy Communion one actually participates in the body and blood of Christ. This participation, however, occurs through the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to a Platonic or Aristotelian metaphysic. Or, in another way, the Spirit brings us up spiritually to Christ as opposed to Christ coming down. The Reformed confessions have a strong emphasis on sharing in the substance of the reason Christ, the actual flesh and blood. But the believer is relocated to heaven through the Spirit as opposed to Christ being relocated to the believer on earth.

    1. David,

      We find your comment interesting, considering we got the information for our post from several Reformed Christians. God bless!

  2. I’m on the fence at the moment I am not part of a church and the only sermons and Christian content I follow/read/watch is either reformed or orthodox.
    I grew up in a penticostal church and its a million miles from either of these. I’m really drawn to orthodoxy because it is head and shoulders above all denominations when it comes to separation from the world, however when it comes to evangelism, debates and speaking out against secularism, abortion etc, Protestants own that space hands down. So many protestant denominations are apostate though with same sex marriage, woke ideologies, etc.
    This probably isn’t the best place to have a little rant but I would appreciate some prayer.
    God Bless.

    1. Rob,

      Christ is in our midst! But of course we will pray for you. Seeking Truth is not an easy task, and we pray that the Lord guides you to the fullness of the Truth in His time. You are correct that the Orthodox Church is not as “vocal” as Protestant denominations when it comes to the secular space. But you said yourself that Orthodoxy is above all others when it comes to separation from the world. We cannot have our cake and eat it, too, it seems. The Church’s teachings are clear in regard to all that is happening in secular society; however, many Orthodox Christians find themselves being swept away in rationalizations. Pray for us as well – God bless!

      1. Hi there,

        Thank you for the well-written articles. I was raised Catholic but became a born-again believer and attend a Protestant church now. I am very interested in learning about different denominations and the Truth. I am just wondering here why you say “We cannot have our cake and eat it, too”? Why can’t the Orthodox Church be more vocal with evangelism and fighting the sin in the world? I would love to hear your thoughts.

        God bless.

        1. Zina,

          Christ is in our midst! Glory to God – we are so grateful that you find value in these articles. In saying that, we primarily meant that people often disregard the Orthodox Church as the True Church simply because her members are not the best at evangelism. And this comes out of historical circumstance and necessity, which we could write an entire article about in itself. Absolutely, Orthodox Christians should do more to spread their Faith and decry sinful behaviors. But that does not necessarily mean predominating the secular space. It is often through prayer, worship, and silent witness that the Church does her best evangelism. May God bless you!

  3. I find myself in the Reformed Baptist tradition, with a great appreciation of the Orthodox tradition. I think our traditions are in agreement as far as the 1st 6 ecumenical council’s, whereas the Protestant view is that the 7th was a departure from Scripture. Having said that there is about 2 central aspects of the Orthodox way that I do not see in Scripture, and therefore cannot see myself becoming Orthodox, yet I share the same Orthodox heart of humble theology and the desire to put my faith in practice, take up my cross and seek to follow Christ. Therefore I also treasure the church fathers, their writings and all the great examples of practical faith that the Orthodox tradition is filled with, which I also see as part of my heritage. I am not a Calvinist, and sometimes I think that it can seem as if Protestants reduce the gospel of salvation to 5 points, whereas true Reformed and Orthodox surely treasure every breath, word, deed, saying, parable, doctrine and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in the 4 Gospels that is to be studied, imitated, put in practice, lived and followed. God bless.

  4. Coming from a Reformed perspective, I find this summary very fair. I think dialogue would be vastly improved if more churches instructed their laity to approach other Christians in this way.

    That said, there are those like me who hold pretty unwaveringly to Reformed theology when it comes to the basics of salvation, but who have a very high view of the Church and the Sacraments she has been entrusted with. I personally have no issue whatever with iconography, the Church year, fasting, praying *with* (not to) the saints, honoring the Blessed Virgin (though not as a mediator) and the monastic life/disciplines. I simply believe Holy Writ establishes God as utterly sovereign in salvation.

    However, there are Christians in the Reformed camp – probably a majority- who are deeply allergic to anything that echoes Roman Catholicism – they are not only theologically Reformed but ecclesiastically Reformed too. So there are many distinctions! Either way, God bless your ministry and labors!

    1. Eric,

      Christ is Risen! Thank you for your kind words. May the blessings of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ be with you!

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