We call ourselves a Christian Reformed Church in North America. What does that mean?
- We call ourselves Christian because we are followers of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he is the center of human history.
- We’re called Reformed because we grow on a branch of the church tree that emerged from the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe.
- We’re a Church because we believe God has called us together to be a people who belong to him and live for him.
- North America tells you where we are situated; but it also tells you we’re connected with other Reformed denominations in other places around the globe.
We believe that the Bible is the authoritative and inerrant Word of God. It contains all that people in any age need to know for their salvation. We call the Bible God’s Word, believing that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through this book.
The Bible has two major sections that at first glance seem quite different from each other. The Old Testament records God’s work through centuries of Israelite history until about 400 B.C. The New Testament picks up with God’s work through the life of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit in power, and the subsequent spread of the church over the first century A.D. You could also think of the Bible as a library of sixty-six unique books of various kinds by many authors in different contexts over thousands of years. But it is only one book: the whole of it forms one richly textured story of God’s loving purpose in relation to humans and the whole creation.
Four Chapters: Reformed believers summarize this biblical story in four major chapters:
- Creation - In the beginning God created a world where everything was in perfect harmony. Relations between God and humans and the creation were good and whole.
- Fall - Through pride, humans were enticed by Satan into rebelling against God. Their disobedient act opened the door for the “sin virus” to enter the world. This virus contaminates everything: no person, no creature, no institution, no relationship or individual action is free from the totality of this contamination. The results of sin are evident in such things as greed, violence, and oppression as well as pollution, sickness, death, and weeds. The most devastating effect of sin is alienation from God. Still, sin cannot obliterate the “image of God” in us that longs for God and for wholeness.
- Redemption - But God did not allow sin have the last word in this story. Because of his great love for humans and for the whole creation, God set out to redeem the world from its sinful condition. God called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, the people of Israel, to be his partners in blessing the whole world. Finally, he sent his only Son, Jesus the Messiah, to live a fully human life and then die, thus paying the price for humanity’s sinful actions. But death could not defeat Jesus. God raised him from the dead to show that he had conquered sin and death. Now God’s kingdom is growing and spreading in this world, and Christians are part of that great work.
- New Creation - One day, Jesus is coming back again to extend God’s reign on earth completely. He will do away with any traces of sin and its effects. There will be no more sickness, no more suffering, no more alienation from God, no more death. Evil will be eradicated. God himself will dwell with humans and all creation will be fully restored. Praise God!
To summarize these common beliefs, we’ll use the text of the Apostles’ Creed. But first an explanation. Despite its title, the Apostles’ Creed was not written by the apostles or disciples who walked and talked with Jesus in the first century. Instead it is a compilation of what believers in the first centuries knew from written and oral testimony, which was then distilled into the essentials of the Christian faith. This creed was reworked by successive councils of the early Church. It was adopted in its present form before the end of the fourth century.
A quick look at the structure of the Apostles’ Creed reveals one of the bedrock truths of the Christian faith: the Trinity. The creed is divided into three parts: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. All Christians believe that the Bible reveals one God in three “persons.” In other words, God is a perfect community of love.
I believe in God,
The creed begins with a simple affirmation of belief in God. The following three sections describe the three persons of this one God.
God the Father
the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
The first person of the Trinity is the one Jesus revealed to us as “the Father.” God is not some remote, unknowable spiritual entity. Rather God is our loving, powerful heavenly Father.
Against all other ideologies about the beginning of the world, we profess that God created heaven and earth and all that is in them. This profession affirms the goodness of creation and endows it with meaning and purpose.
Further, all that is good and beautiful points to a Creator God. Thus all humans can know something about God through what creation reveals.
God the Son
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, though born of a woman, was more than a human being; he was actually God’s Son and thus also God himself.
As the Christ, Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah who would redeem God’s people. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are grounded in historical fact.
After his earthly work of redemption was finished, Jesus took his place in heaven as Lord of all things. He will come again to make all things new.
God the Holy Spirit
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic* church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
*that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places
When Jesus ascended bodily to heaven, he promised his disciples a comforter, a source of power; one that would “lead them into all truth.” This gift was the Holy Spirit. Ever since then, the Holy Spirit has dwelled in and empowered God’s people.
The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God with us here and now, leading the church, uniting God’s people, applying God’s forgiveness to our broken lives, speaking to us, and spurring us individually and communally to godly living.
We’ve already pointed out that most of what the CRC teaches and believes it holds in common with believers around the world. Yet as a denomination we tend to emphasize some teachings or Scriptural interpretations more than others. How can this be?
If you think of the worldwide church as a body, then you can imagine denominations as individual organs. Each organ contributes to the proper functioning of the body, and each performs a unique function. Or imagine a room full of English speakers from different corners of the world— Georgia, Australia, Britain, South Africa, Scotland, and Toronto. Each speaks the same language, but their accents make them sound very different! Sometimes we refer to our particular emphases as speaking with a Reformed accent. Three words that figure prominently within a Reformed accent are sovereignty, covenant, and kingdom.
It’s all about God! Those of us who speak with a Reformed accent hold a very high view of God’s sovereignty: God’s plan, God’s will, God’s power. Everything that happens in the world, from the acts of nations to the faith of individuals, is ultimately under God’s sovereign control.
We find it very comforting that God’s infinite love and grace is coupled with God’s power and ability to work on our behalf. You see, we know that no human thought or speech or action or desire is completely free of the effects of the fall. Even our will is tainted. Therefore we cannot help ourselves; we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Our only hope, then, is to admit that we have a sin problem, that we are powerless to help ourselves, and that we need to ask for God’s intervention. Since God has already stirred such a desire in us, we are sure that he will answer our cry.
Mysteriously, God doesn’t accomplish his will apart from human faith and action. This means, for example, that we are careful in our language about salvation. We don’t urge people to “accept Jesus into your life”—which could imply that human will has the power to keep God out, as if we are the directors of our own destiny. We’d rather focus on how God calls people into relationship with him, urging people to say yes to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus and offer their lives to God in return. Although we’re deeply involved in responding to God’s love in Jesus Christ, salvation is ultimately God’s work from beginning to end.
Another word that shows up a lot in our Reformed accent is covenant. Perhaps that word isn’t familiar to you. A covenant is like a contract or a treaty. It involves partners who make promises to each other and then seal the deal in some appropriate way—with signatures, for example. The Bible talks of God as a “covenant-making God,” meaning that he makes promises and keeps them. (The word testament, as in Old and New Testaments, really means covenant.)
This is a very good thing to know! Because the sad truth of the matter is that we have a hard time keeping our promises. Think of all those New Year’s resolutions that dissipate in the light of January 2. More sadly, think of the number of marriages promises, made in complete sincerity, that are broken. God makes firm covenant promises to love and protect, to care for and guide his people—in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. Though our promises prove feeble, God’s are firm. In fact, God can carry our covenant all by himself.
Here’s where our accent gets a little more pronounced. We profess that God’s promises are not simply made to individuals but to a community. Not only that, they are generational. We take our cue from God’s Old Testament covenant with the people of Israel. And we note that on the day of Pentecost, in the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter urges adult Jews to “repent and believe” this new interpretation of the events of Jesus’ life and death and their complicity in it. When they do so, he says, they will receive the promised Holy Spirit, which is “for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Even in the New Testament, God’s promises are communal and generational.
This means, for example, that with joy we baptize adults who want to profess their faith, and with equal joy we baptize infants (a practice that goes back to the early church). There’s a catch, though. Baptism is reserved for children of believing parents (or a believing parent) who are part of the church family, because we know that the Holy Spirit is active in those households. Those children will grow up to experience God’s promises at home and in the Christian community. Infant baptism is about God extending his promise to our children even though they have no understanding at the time. It is a sign to the whole congregation that God’s grace is a gift we cannot earn: it’s all about God acting first.
A final word that’s important to a Reformed accent is kingdom. And here the accent gets very broad because kingdom takes in all of human culture throughout the world. Unlike nations on earth, God’s kingdom does not have defined borders. It is not restricted to a certain location, like a cathedral; nor can it be reduced to “religious” activity. By God’s kingdom we mean God’s sovereign rule, God’s sphere of influence. We believe that God’s Spirit is busy extending God’s rule all over creation.
Certainly God’s reign is evident in spiritual experiences of renewal and change. But it is also evident in God’s gracious upholding of creation day by day, season by season. God’s reign is evident anywhere God’s will is done—in actions, lives, technology, artistry, and institutions.
God calls each of us to participate in the spread of his kingdom. The whole world is a place where we can carry out the mission of restoring God’s creation. In the memorable words of Dutch statesman and pastor Abraham Kuyper, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Our kingdom focus means that our denomination has been active in some unique kingdom-building activities. Avoiding any division between sacred and secular, we encourage endeavors in any sphere of human activity: art, media, publishing, law, education, labor relations, caregiving, agriculture, business, social justice, and politics. No area of human enterprise is exempt. CRC communities have established Christian schools from preschool to graduate school—not to protect students from the world but to give them the tools to engage any aspect of culture from the perspective of God’s kingdom.
After all, it’s God’s world.
Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God. His victory over sin and death turned the tide. Though sin, brokenness, and evil are still evident in the world, God’s kingdom is already here and is still coming. Someday Christ will come again, bringing the kingdom in full. In the meantime we pray and act for God’s kingdom to come.