Grace, mystery, beauty and freedom:  Four takeaways of Reformed theology

The thing about Reformed theology is that it is not really aiming to be “Reformed.” It is aiming to be Christian. It is trying to articulate, in the best way it can, the character of our relationship to God. It takes the Bible seriously, looking through it as though it were eyeglasses to help us see where and how God is present in the world. It learns from and dialogues with our forebears in the faith, by way of the creeds and confessions of the church. It is centered in Jesus Christ, who reveals the love of God and calls us to partnership in God’s work. It relies on the Holy Spirit to form us and guide us in the way we should go. And it looks to God’s laws to imagine what God desires and how God has promised it will come to fruition.

Much of what I have said in the above paragraph is true for every major Christian tradition, not exclusively for Reformed theology. Is there anything distinctive about being Reformed? Why should congregations bother to study and learn about it? What does Reformed theology have to offer our lives in these days in which we find ourselves?

Four marks of Reformed theology

In this brief article I discuss four theological themes emphasized in the Reformed tradition that I think speak an important word to our U.S. context today. I believe that, if congregations attended to them, they would be better equipped to contribute to the healing of some major wounds in our world. Specifically, I believe Reformed theology has the wherewithal:

  1. to convey to people that their value is not determined by their performance; 
  2. to honor mystery without setting aside intellect; 
  3. to celebrate beauty even when we are surrounded by profound ugliness; and 
  4. to uphold the freedom of God in ways that ensure and promote the freedom of each and every creature.

Allow me to reflect on the healing value of each of these four themes in more detail.

Grace says value isn’t determined by performance

Reformed theology does a great job of emphasizing grace in a world that is so often graceless. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a fairly common occurrence for people to receive more than they deserve. In the midst of all the hatefulness, there are plenty of examples of people being really kind. But grace, as Reformed theology teaches it, is not in the business of being exceptionally kind; God is not simply kinder, let’s say, than the kindest among us on our very kindest day. Grace is something utterly disassociated from merit, something that cannot be conceptualized in terms of contracts, transactions or incredible deals. Following Scripture, Reformed theology teaches not that God gives us more than we deserve or something we don’t deserve at all, but that God has claimed us as God’s own entirely apart from our worthiness or unworthiness. 

In an economically precarious world in which we are frequently reminded that no one is irreplaceable, the reality of God’s grace can reassure and transform us. The challenge is, however, living with a perception of it. To move through one’s days with a cognizance that one is saved by grace and grace alone takes attention and practice. It also takes the support of a community. To pray and worship, study and discuss in fellowship with other members of a Reformed congregation positions us to become increasingly mindful of our unalterable identity as children of God. When we know we are God’s beloved, irreplaceable children, we are able not only to survive a world that is relentlessly measuring our worth, we can also work to change this world into one that more clearly manifests the kingdom of God. We can, more and more, come to see others also as irreplaceable, treating them accordingly, living differently together as members of the beloved community.

Mind and heart together

In a political, social and environmental moment in which we are becoming increasingly skeptical of organized religion and yet at the same time are desperate to draw from creative wisdom that lies beyond ourselves, Reformed theology insists on wedding Word and Sacrament, interpretation and mystery, the metaphysical and the mystical. In “The Death of Adam,” novelist and Calvin scholar Marilynne Robinson celebrates this approach, arguing, “for Calvin … metaphysics … [is] an impassioned flight of the soul” and “mysticism [is] a method of rigorous inquiry.” Along these lines, members of congregations that participate in Reformed worship are practicing the integration of mind and heart. We listen to the sermon, and our knowledge of God comes not only through the insights we receive but also through the connection of the Word proclaimed to what will come next: our participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ at Table. And we partake of the bread and the cup not as those who have set our intellect, analyses and skepticisms to the side, but as those who are still listening for the Word by way of ordinary, extraordinary words. And so we are invited to continue using our brains as well as our hearts as we eat and drink, considering what God is up to and how we can join in the work. 

This integration matters in our world today, in part, because it takes into account our intellectual and spiritual capabilities and responsibilities while still honoring the fact that God can do more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Like the religiously unaffiliated “nones and dones” in our culture, we don’t want a faith that contributes to the world’s problems by shutting itself off to criticism, analysis and reinterpretation. We want a faith that thinks and keeps on thinking. At the same time, we also know we need help that lies beyond ourselves. As a friend of mine, troubled about the current political climate and the most recent act of violence, put it the other day, “I think we’re all looking for a little magic right now.” Reformed theology has that magic. We call it “mystery.” We can chew it, swallow it and talk about it and, in doing so, reclaim the sacramental character of every element of life, including our questions and doubts. 

Celebration of beauty

Congregations that study Reformed theology know they can celebrate beauty even in the midst of the ugliness that surrounds us. We grieve the ugliness of violent acts and crimes of intolerance, of accusations and of unconfessed sin, of global warming and other forms of environmental destruction. We repent of our own ugly sins, including our complicity in framing and feeding rampant consumerism.

In the midst of all this ugliness, the Reformed tradition insists that – nevertheless! – God’s wondrous works are in evidence and that, as Calvin reflected, this world is the “theater of God’s glory” shared for our enjoyment. In one of his sermons, along these lines, Calvin goes so far as to insist: “There is not a single blade of grass, there is not a color in this world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.” 

We might ask in these ugly times: Why is it so important that we see the beautiful? Isn’t it more critical that we stay focused on the problems that surround us, so we can address and solve them? Reformed theology teaches that being able to perceive God’s beautiful gifts is itself a transformative gift of grace and a benefit of faith. To live with the perception of beauty is something God desires for us so that we might enjoy full, abundant lives that overflow in service to others. This means our perception of the beautiful is never only for our own sake, but also for the sake of others. Congregations that are in the habit of enjoying God’s beautiful gifts bear “shining faces” to the world, Karl Barth notes, representing the church to the world as a “parable and promise of the kingdom of God.” Far from serving as an escape from difficulties, then, our perception of beauty should only deepen our aversion to all the ugliness, inciting us to work with renewed energy for the coming of God’s beautiful kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

Freedom in Christ

Congregations that study Reformed theology have the opportunity to re-think the character of human freedom by way of embracing the sovereignty, or freedom, of God. So often the idea that God is sovereign is associated with the assumption that therefore human beings are not so very free — we are bound to obey, to submit to God’s rule and to realize our relative insignificance as players in salvation history. Reformed theology corrects the misconception that honoring God’s freedom means accepting human freedom as insignificant, relatively speaking. Reformed theology teaches, in contrast to this, that the God who is sovereign has chosen to “love [us] in freedom” (according to Barth), including us as essential participants in God’s own life and work. This happens by way of our Savior Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Through Christ, God in the divine freedom has entered fully into the human condition (even unto death on the cross) and lifted us up (in the resurrection and ascension). God’s freedom, then, does not entail diminishment of human freedom or agency. Rather, God has freely exalted us in ways we might never have imagined, claiming us in Jesus Christ as friends and partners in the ministry of reconciliation (John 15:15; 2 Corinthians 5).

One of the implications of understanding our freedom in relation to the sovereignty of God is, according to Barth, that we don’t have to live stressed-out all the time. Anxious living is commonplace in a world convinced that we need to work hard and continuously to be “winners,” making spaces for ourselves in relation to our careers, our family dynamics and on social media, for example. To remember that God is sovereign and that the sovereign God has fully included us is to realize we do not have to vie for a space to create and serve any more than we need to prove our worthiness; a place for us has already been prepared. Congregations that study and believe this might well become communities in which members are not only assured of their belovedness, but are encouraged to use their gifts freely and innovatively in service to others. 

Healthy, Reformed churches

The trend, these days, is to lean toward a post-denominational approach to congregational education. In some ways this is a good thing because church communities can then draw from a range of resources and ideas as they work on Christian formation. The downside of such approaches is that they sometimes miss out on the emphases and distinctive contributions of particular traditions. I have tried, in this article, to highlight four of the great ideas emphasized in our Reformed Christian tradition that I believe can bring healing both to the congregations that study it and to the worlds in which their members live and serve. 

Imagine what we, our congregations and the world would be like if we walked around in our shoes knowing – really knowing – that we are beloved of God regardless of our achievements. And what would we experience, I wonder, if we truly believed we had permission to embrace mystery with both our minds and our hearts? We might ask: How much more energized would we be about transforming the ugliness of the world if we were able to attend to the beauty that surrounds us? And, finally: What would it look like to lean into our freedom to live and work without stress, trusting that the God who loves us unconditionally also holds a space for us to exercise our gifts? 

These are four ideas that, if they got out, would no doubt change us, our communities and the life of the world. We would do well to ponder them, allow them to form us and share them as good news. 

Cynthia Rigby

CYNTHIA RIGBY is professor of theology at Austin Theological Seminary in Texas.