Review: Reformed Theology By Jonathan Master (Blessings Of The Faith Series)

In the wake of the New Calvinist (sometimes called the “Young, Restless, and Reformed”) movement, the adjective Reformed gets slapped on seemingly everything. What does it mean to be Reformed? Is it simply people who hold to a Calvinistic soteriology? Is it (as this author once mistakenly thought) simply those denominations or traditions that trace their origin back to the days of the Protestant Reformation? Can the label “Reformed” be slapped on anything we wish, indiscriminately?

Even if one is exploring Reformed theology and the Reformed-faith tradition entirely independent of New Calvinistic influence, such a person may stumble into a Reformed and Presbyterian church and wonder, “What is this ‘Reformed theology’ these folks keep referring to? What is this ‘Reformed faith’? I thought we believed in the Christian faith?”

Written by Jonathan Master, who serves as the president of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, SC, Reformed Theology is part of the “Blessings of the Faith” series from P&R Publishing, a collection of short and accessible treatments on distinctives of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Readable in one sitting, these books are useful introductions, perhaps for a new Christian or for a layperson new to Reformed theology.

The book is not intended to be a high-level academic-theological treatise addressing the entirety of what could be contained under the umbrella of “Reformed theology.” Rather, this brief and accessible little volume will be of immense benefit to curious and thoughtful congregants, visitors, newcomers, and those asking, “What is Reformed theology, anyway?” Complete with questions for reflection at the end of each chapter, this book is suited for either individual or group study.

In the first chapter, Master surveys the historical and popular views of what is meant by “Reformed theology.” Making the distinction between the two Reformation-era traditions—Lutheran and Reformed—he touches on how Reformed theology is often identified with the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” or TULIP. Master notes that while that acronym and the doctrines represented by it are helpful in summarizing key biblical truths about salvation, they do not fully encapsulate all of Reformed theology.

Master suggests there are better ways to define the term “Reformed theology.” As an easy, accessible, and baseline entry point, he contends a more full-orbed starting place might be the five solas of the Reformation: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (the glory of God alone). “Put together, these five affirmations express very clearly the central concerns of the Protestant Reformation” (21).

Master goes on to provide clear and concise explanations of each of the five solas. He then asserts that Reformed theology cannot be rightly understood apart from God’s covenant (or a covenant theology) or divorced from the public and historic confessions of faith that Reformed churches have produced (e.g., the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards). Therefore, Reformed theology (at a minimum) must entail: an affirmation of the five solas of the Reformation, an understanding of the centrality of God’s covenant in his dealings with his people, and a realization that the Reformed faith is expressed in the historic confessions of the church.

In the second chapter, Masters considers the idea of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. Here, he considers the weighty doctrines of God’s sovereignty and election. While Reformed theology encapsulates far more than simply the doctrines of sovereignty and election (as is often misunderstood, as if Reformed theology were nothing more than a hyper-fixation on the truth of God’s sovereignty and the doctrine of predestination), nevertheless, these doctrines are utterly foundational to a full and proper understanding of Reformed theology. In this chapter, Master seeks to explain how Reformed theology cannot be rightly understood apart from the Scriptures and an understanding of God’s sovereignty over all things: like trying to remove tomato as an ingredient from ketchup, it simply cannot be done! Rather, any teaching Christians believe about God and Christianity must be derived from and reckoned with Scripture. Master begins this chapter by considering how the essential components of the Christian message are found in the early chapters of Genesis: God is the creator of all that is, he gave commands to his first people (Adam and Eve), his people sinned against him and there were consequences and a curse as a result, but there was also a promise (Genesis 3:15ff.) of a coming Seed who would one day destroy the serpent and his foul craftiness.

From the reality evidenced in Scripture, Master explains that because God is the creator, he is therefore sovereign over all things. And because he is sovereign over all things, he is sovereign in the election and salvation of his people. That is, because God is sovereign over all the universe, it is a logical, necessary, and biblical corollary that he is sovereign over man’s salvation. It is not just that God is in control of the weather patterns or the behavior of kings and emperors, but he is in control over who obtains salvation and how they do. If God is sovereign over all things, that includes the mysterious and invisible realities of salvation.

Master gives candid, thoughtful, and pastoral consideration to this topic, knowing that this doctrine is often controversial or misunderstood. He insists and demonstrates that it is biblical, and he carefully takes the time to explain it in simple terminology and with the warmth of a considerate teacher. Using multiple biblical examples and citations from Scripture, Master connects the dots for the readers to help them understand that the reality of election is a natural outflow from the truth of God’s sovereignty: that if God is sovereign over all things, then he must also necessarily be in control over salvation. Truly, this doctrine is one of comfort and hope for the Christian because we need God to be in control over our salvation. Apart from him, we are dead in our sins (Eph 2:1). Apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5) and have no hope of being saved (43). In this, Master guides the reader to better apprehend man’s helplessness (and therefore, his utter dependence on God’s glorious power and mercy—what Scripture refers to as “sovereignty” and “election”). He demonstrates that this understanding is not made up on the fanciful whims of doctrinaire theologues, but is derived from the Holy Scripture. Scripture and God’s sovereignty—Reformed theology cannot be rightly understood apart from these doctrinal facets.

In the third chapter, Master gives a brief, succinct, and helpful overview of classic Reformed covenant theology, outlining the various covenants as they come to us in the Scriptures. After providing a short, simple definition of covenant, Master briefly explains the covenant of works, before walking the reader through the various other covenants occurring in the Bible: the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the Sinai Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the new covenant—foretold in the New Testament and fulfilled in Christ.

In the fourth chapter, Master considers the blessings of Reformed theology. Since this book is part of the Blessings of the Faith series, he is keen to highlight how Reformed theology really does afford blessings to the believer. Reformed theology is not meant to be simply doctrinal data for the intellect, but scriptural truths for the good and comfort of the Christian—blessings. Here, he gives attention to:

  • The Security of Scripture: Scripture, and not the whims of man or mere custom, serves as the final authority in the Christian faith.
  • The Comfort of God’s Sovereignty: Far from being an austere doctrine, this teaching serves to comfort the Christian in times of joy and pleasure and in seasons of sorrow or suffering. Knowing that the Lord God is in control of all things is for the believer’s comfort and reassurance.
  • The Wonder of God’s Election: While election may seem a point of objection or cause for confusion for some, in reality, it drives the believer to praise and adoration. When one considers what a wretched sinner they are, the fact that God should set his saving love upon them is a cause for wonder and doxology.
  • The Clarity of the Covenant: When we understand our faith and the teaching of Scripture within its covenantal structure, we better understand the promises of God given to us and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and thus we better understand our place of belonging within the covenant people of God (including Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament), living out our Christian faith as individuals, families, and churches today.
  • Transparency in Our Confession: Our confessions are a clear, honest, and straightforward proffering of what we believe as Christian people. Confessions serve God’s people well in that they “lay all the cards on the table” in terms of what we believe. They articulate our faith cogently, summarizing the teachings that we find in Scripture, which is a help to people both within the church and outside of it. Further, Scripture itself, Master argues, assumes the need for doctrinal statements and summaries (80). Additionally, confessions benefit the church by providing careful, seasoned, and historical reflections on Christian belief. Today’s Christians need not be carried along by the fads and impulses of the present moment, but can benefit from the collective wisdom of the saints down through the ages as we seek to articulate, defend, and commend the truths of the faith.

All of these aspects, Master argues, are not mere intellectual articles to which we assent, but are genuine blessings for the Christian soul.

In the final section (83–103), Master provides succinct and pastoral answers to many of the most common questions and misunderstandings surrounding Reformed theology. The whole book is helpful and instructive, though this section which answers potential objections to Reformed theology may prove the most useful to readers wrestling through their questions. This section addresses common questions regarding things like, how Reformed theology affects our understanding of the New Testament, what Reformed theology teaches about infant baptism or the Holy Spirit, what impact Reformed theology has on missions and evangelism, whether Reformed theology negates an understanding of “free will,” whether Reformed theology is geared only for intellects, why Reformed people can sometimes be “prickly or obnoxious”(!), Reformed theology’s impact on worship and the family, and more.

Master has provided the church with a clear, succinct, accessible, and pastoral volume that ably outlines the basics of what Reformed theology is, supported with numerous Scripture citations and examples. The question-and-answer section especially anticipates many common questions and misperceptions and answers in a pithy, biblical, and understanding way. One of the particular strengths of this volume is that it is both clear and succinct—things not all Reformed people are adept at being! The insistence, as well, that Reformed must be defined and understood in tandem with covenant theology and the historic confessions produced by Reformed churches is welcome.

Any pastor or elder who has visitors or even longtime congregants trying to get their head around Reformed theology will be greatly aided by putting this little volume into their hands. This book is warmly recommended.

©Sean Morris. All Rights Reserved.

Jonathan Master, Reformed Theology, Blessings of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2023).


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    Post authored by:

  • Sean Morris
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    Sean was educated at Grove City College, Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), and the University of Glasgow (Scotland). He is an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and serves as a minister at the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He also serves as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Historical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sean lives in Oak Ridge with his wife, Sarah, along with their children and useless beagle.

    More by Sean Morris ›

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