One of the less familiar treasures—and yet a great treasure—of our Reformation heritage is expressed in the theme, “Reformed and always being reformed.” Abbreviated in Latin, the expression is Semper Reformanda.1 Even if it is less familiar than some other themes like Sola Scriptura or Sola Gratia, “Always being reformed” is a fundamental aspect of our Reformation heritage. But the expression is less familiar because it did not develop until after the Reformation. Yet, without it we are not fully or genuinely Reformed.
The historical origin of the motto is unclear. An otherwise obscure preacher, the Dutchman Jocodus van Lodenstein, is thought to be the first to have used it. Van Lodenstein was a “Second Reformation” preacher whose emphasis was on the reformation of personal piety. This “Second Reformation” (from about the time of the Synod of Dordt till about 1750) is sometimes referred to as the “Further Reformation” because it was an effort to apply the principles of the sixteenth-century Reformation further—now to the personal lives of the church members. The Reformation went far, these leaders believed, but not far enough. The church was reformed; now Christian lives must be reformed. Emphasis must be given to piety. According to one view, then, “always reforming” refers to the progress Christians must make in personal sanctification.
Important as private piety is, “always being reformed” refers not to personal reform but to church reformation. The expression, which was not popularized until the 1900s, has come to be phrased: the Reformed church must continue to be re-formed by the Word of God. Not necessarily to the extent of the sixteenth-century Reformation in which wholesale changes were required and radical reforms took place. But reformation where necessary.
And Reformed believers agree that reformation is always necessary. Always in Latin is semper. Over the course of generations, there is always deformation, which calls for constant reformation. Agreeing with this enables one to say that, if a church is unwilling to subject herself to reform—that is, examine herself constantly according to the Word of God, and regularly conform her faith and life to that Word; that is, always “be re-formed”—she is unworthy of the name Reformed.
A mandate from where?
Interestingly, the church receives no explicit warrant for constant reformation from the confessions. Indeed, in the confessions is repeated exhortation to personal reformation, correction, and change that must always be “more and more.” But the confessions do not call the church to a constant self-examination and correction according to the Scripture. At least not explicitly as we might want. Which makes sense, because the confessions are not a reflection on the process of church reformation.
Yet the biblical warrant for such activity is clear.
Bible history is unmistakable: the natural inclination of the church was to depart, decline, degenerate, apostatize, become unfaithful. Usually this took place gradually; at times in only a generation or two, as in the days of the judges. But the cycle is clear: a generation arose that knew not the Lord; the Lord sent His judgments to chasten the church; the Lord sent a deliverer to restore and reform them. So it went in the days of Israel’s kings. And so it was in the days of the Lord’s earthly ministry. The church had once more deformed. So Jesus battled His entire ministry against the Pharisees, who had so badly corrupted the church that she was hardly recognizable. And so it went in the time of the Middle Ages, until the Roman Catholic Church had become the false church and reformation was again necessary.
Jesus’ letters to the churches in the book of Revelation remind us of this tendency to atrophy. Sardis, “the dead church with the dead minister” as Herman Hoeksema described it, is but one of seven churches whose letters give strong warning about church deformation. The weaknesses and departures of these churches are found in every generation.
Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians () can be read with this in mind. The King James Version reads: “Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.” A legitimate way to interpret the passage is to paraphrase it thus: “Do not despise all preaching (‘prophesyings’) because of error in some of it. Rather, test (‘prove’) all of the preaching by the Word of God. Hold fast to what is truth in it. Reject (‘abstain from’) every form (‘appearance’) of evil in it.”
What Paul mandates in Thessalonians is what we understand by the expression Semper Reformanda. The church always engages in self-examination in the light of Scripture. As she does, she holds fast to her confessions, practices, and traditions that are biblical, and corrects and changes what has become corrupt. Only, of course, according to the infallible standard of Holy Scripture. Thus, the Reformation theme Sola Scriptura.
Because of our sinful tendencies, we do not like to examine ourselves ecclesiastically any more than a husband likes to examine himself with regard to his care of his wife. And if husbands bristle when a suggestion for correction and improvement is made, it is not surprising that churches, especially church leaders, become angry when confronted with the possibility that they have failed or must be corrected.
But also that is the story of church history. What age ever underwent reformation without greatest struggle? Who ever was able to be God’s instrument of reform except he was resisted, at times violently? Think of the times of the judges and of the kings. What happened to the prophets who called for reform? Observe Jesus’ ministry among the Pharisees, the ‘conservatives’ in His day. Remember the threats against Luther. Violence exalts itself against this reforming work of God (see the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48).
But rather than looking outward at this point, wondering who out there will resist our efforts to reform them, let us ask ourselves whether we are willing and able to engage in this important exercise of self-examination according to God’s Word. Are we willing to submit to painful corrections? If we are not willing, then someday 95 theses may be nailed on our church door, or someone may enter our sanctuary and turn our tables upside down. Will we be like the masses who considered Luther and Calvin innovators, but were completely unaware that innovations had been taking place incrementally in their own church for generations, and that Luther and Calvin were God’s instruments to bring the church back to her origins?
So what unhealthy signs may be found among us? Are we offended when even a question is asked about current practices? Is it thought a sign of impiety or weakness to scrutinize any tradition for correction or improvement? Is all change considered departure? A proposal that in a certain area of teaching or practice there could be improvement, even correction, is met with what kind of angry resistance? Let us examine ourselves regarding a willingness to be reformed. Semper Reformanda.
How the resistance appears is predictable: “You only want change. You always want change! You are tempting the church to abandon the traditions and walk on new paths. You are leading the church astray.”
Of course, this response carries some weight in our hearts because there is another danger churches face—the sentiment in the church that always craves change and fancies change for the sake of change. The church must not always want change.
At this point, the full expression of the slogan Semper Reformanda helps. “The church that is Reformed is always in need of being re-formed according to the Word of God.” The believer starts with being Reformed. The right to the name Reformed belongs to those holding the historic Reformed confessions, maintaining historic Reformed church government, Reformation worship practices, and the old Reformed view of the Christian life. Being Reformed is to start with the traditions and to resist the penchant to start from scratch in every new generation. Being Reformed is to battle those spirits who ignore the foundations built by our fathers. We start there. Reformed with a capital “R.”
Never changing? (We are not ‘conservatives’!)
We start with being Reformed. But we do not stop there. And there is the problem for the others. They want to stop with what we have, are satisfied with the status quo.
So pastors and elders must teach their flocks that not every change is the first step to complete apostasy. They must train a generation of young people not to assume that, with the first hint of change, the sky must be falling. The healthy generation is wary of change, but not unwilling to reform. We must raise a company of believers willing to do the hard work of examining the church, in every generation, to see if there be “any wicked way in her.” We pray for a generation with a discerning eye, able to distinguish between biblical tradition and mere custom. They must be able to know the difference between the old paths as Jeremiah called us to walk in, and old paths that are not so old after all, but a digression from the right way that started, maybe, a hundred or so years ago.
If the Lord does not give us such a generation of Reformed believers, the church will slowly lose the Reformation motto Semper Reformanda and adopt, without thinking, the Roman Catholic motto Semper Eadem— always the same—a motto not only erroneous, but ruinous. The poor people in the Roman Catholic Church! They naively supposed that Rome was the same as she had always been from the apostolic age. They trusted their leaders who were “conservative.” But they were conserving the wrong traditions.
We do not want to be known as ‘conservatives.’ Remember the old wit who said, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” We are not Conservatives. We are, and want to be known as, Reformed. Semper Reformanda.
The remedy for the unwillingness to be re-formed is the knowledge of history. And not only knowledge of history, but interest in studying history. And not merely the history of the last two generations, or of one’s own denomination, but of the catholic Christian church world-wide for the last 2,000 years.
The generation that arose in the days of the judges did not know the Lord because they did not know history, that is, “the works which he had done for Israel” (). The followers of the Scribes and Pharisees did not know history, so had to learn from Jesus that “from the beginning it was not so.” When God used Luther and Calvin to reform the church, He did so by leading these men to history, to the sources, ad fontes! Their knowledge of the church fathers, their appeals to Augustine and others in the ancient church, were powerful weapons in their struggle for reformation.
The church today ought to be profoundly thankful for every faithful school teacher of church history, who not only teaches the young people the facts of history, but instills in them a hunger for reading and studying.
Then, some day, when these knowledgeable and, by then, mature adults examine our church with the Word of God, and conclude that they must propose correction, improvement, development, change, we meet them not with an alarmist fear, but a sober desire to follow the good old tradition of a willingness to be re-formed. “Reformed and always being re-formed.” Semper Reformanda.
1 The reader will notice that, in this article, I use Reformed with a capital “R” to give a name to churches of a particular heritage; and reformed with a lower case “r” to refer to an action performed upon that church. Thus, ‘Reformed and always being reformed’ means: a Reformed church must always submit herself to reform. To make this clear, at times I will hyphenate the word re-formed to emphasize the action performed upon a church.