Every church or denomination has a statement that describes what she believes the bible teaches. This is oftentimes called a statement of faith, but is also known as a creed or confession. The church has always had creeds and confessions to help safeguard the truth of God’s Word from error and thereby maintain the unity, catholicity and Apostolicity of the church.
Because every church or denomination has a statement of what she believes, which has been shaped by what Christians have believed in the past, every church aligns itself with a school of thought on what the bible teaches and how its truths should be practiced. In other words, every church and every Christian belongs to a tradition of interpreting Scripture and putting it into practice, whether they know it or not.
The Reformed Churches in South Africa (RCSA) is part of a tradition that goes back to the time of the Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth-century, which was a movement that sought to recover the truths of Scripture – most especially the doctrine of justification – that had been almost altogether lost during the period of the medieval church. The RCSA believes that what the bible teaches is faithfully summed up in the Ecumenical Creeds of the early church and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century confessions known as the Three Forms of Unity (The Heidelberg Catechism, The Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dortrecht), which can be found here.
The confessions of the Reformed tradition are very similar in content to the Presbyterian seventeenth-century confessional standards known as the Westminster Standards, which you can read here. The Reformed and Presbyterian traditions also share beliefs in common with the likes of the Lutheran and Anglican traditions; but there are also important differences.
The following are some Reformed and Presbyterian distinctives that can be derived either explicitly or implicitly from their confessional standards:
- The absolute sovereignty of God in creation and salvation;
- Scripture is a unified unfolding drama of God’s saving acts in history, which have culminated in Jesus Christ;
- Scripture consists of law and gospel, which must be properly distinguished;
- Scripture is to be read covenantally;
- The law is impossible for human beings to keep because of sin;
- All of Scripture points to Christ;
- Preaching must clearly distinguish between law and gospel;
- Preaching makes sinners relevant to the world of Scripture;
- Preaching is God speaking and is the power of God unto salvation;
- Preaching is God’s chief means of imparting grace to sinners;
- Justification (being right with God) is by grace alone through faith alone;
- Justification includes Christ’s sacrifice for our sin and his active obedience imputed (reckoned) to us by faith;
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not empty symbols, but are sacraments that confirm faith and convey grace;
- Baptism is for infants as well as new adult converts;
- Corporate worship on Sunday is God-centered;
- The means of grace – preaching and the sacraments – are central to the life of the Christian;
- Corporate worship is governed by the commands and only the commands of Scripture;
- Corporate worship is counter-cultural;
- Corporate worship is called twice (morning and evening) on Sunday;
- Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath devoted to rest and public and private acts of worship;
- God works through the family unit to fulfill his covenant promises of salvation;
- Church membership and church discipline are important;
- Home visitation is part of the shepherding task of the elders;
- The offices of pastor, elder and deacon are held in high esteem;
- Family worship and parents teaching the bible to their children are vital;
- Conversion is a process;
- Christian freedom is zealously guarded, lest legalism destroy the church;
- Not all Christians are ministers, but we all glorify God in our vocations and callings;
- Christians share much in common with non-Christians in their lives outside the church;
- Christians are pilgrims and exiles in this world;
- Christians never get beyond the gospel;
- Assurance comes chiefly from objective truths of the gospel;
- Feelings must be informed by the truths of God’s Word;
- The Christian life is one of suffering;
- Christians will struggle with sin (often the same ones) for their entire lives;
- The church is concerned about reaching the lost without losing the reached.