When Martin Luther first nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church door was little doubt he had no idea the far-reaching implications of what it was that he was setting in motion. Though the Church in the West had been challenged before, on October 31st, 1517, the perfect set of circumstances had been created, and his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences would light a fire that would be the first step in setting off a powder keg that would become known as the Protestant Reformation.
The reality of the Reformation was that it wasn’t something that simply began. It had been a long time coming. The Waldensians, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Petr Chelčický, and others had seen the corruptions within the Church and had sought reformation amidst the desire to draw it back to the Scriptures, and, in turn, Christ himself. Even some who were to become Luther’s staunchest opponents, like Erasmus of Rotterdam, who remained within the walls of the Roman Church, recognized the need for change, the need for reform.
Often times, as we commemorate Reformation Day, it can be easy to focus on the Church of Rome, and those corruptions witnessed 500 years ago, the Canons and Bulls, those traditions that would lead to abuses, to the differences in scriptural interpretation that would create doctrinal deviation based on approaches to divine revelation. They exist, and they cannot be ignored. Yet, the Reformation is about considerably more than looking back, reflecting on the past. It is also about looking inward, and evaluating the church, our churches and their spiritual life, their spiritual walk as they currently stand.
The 17th Century pastor Jodocus Van Lodenstein, understanding this, had an expression that he used, one which would be adapted and used for centuries after his passing. Born just over a century after those events of 1517, he looked upon the church as it came out of Reformation, and he recognized something significant, something important. This was, namely, that the work of Reformation was never done, it was never completed. Thus, according to him, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei, or “The church reformed must always be reforming according to the Word of God.”
The Church Reformed
There is an argument that can be made here that Van Lodenstein was referring to the Reformed Church, those churches that arose from the Reformation that followed what would become known as the Calvinist tradition. Having been born, and living his life in the Netherlands, where the Reformed faith had become the dominant religion, he was deeply affected by the English Puritans, and utterly devoted to Reformed theology. Thus, his understanding of what the ecclesia reformata, or “The church reformed”, meant can’t be easily dismissed, nor should it.
Yet, there are deeper implications that those who are not from the Reformed tradition or do not adhere to Reformed theology should consider. This is, namely, that those who call themselves Christians, those who are called by the power of the Spirit, the elect of God, are called to a transformed life by the renewal of the mind. (Rom. 12:2) Even the word reformed calls our attention to that fact, drawn from the Latin, meaning transform or reshape. By its very nature then the church itself is reformed, because it is composed of those who have undergone a basic, and fundamental change, by and through the grace of God. Once where they were dead in their trespasses, the children of wrath, now they are raised up to life and called the children of God. (Eph. 2:1-10)
This reformed nature of the believer, of the church, ties it to a certain reality. This is, namely, that it is not tied to this world, nor to the things of it. It is not captive to the popular ideologies or philosophies that arise at any given time, or in any given place. Rather, it is bound only to the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it is intended to reflect that through all that it is, and all that it does.
Now, as we consider this, we come to realize something that have a direct implication on the church itself. This is the dual nature, or the dual components of the church, divine, and yet human. It is, what Augustine would refer to as a corpus permixtum, a mixed body, one which reflects God’s grace, as well as the believer’s nature, both in the goodness endowed by Christ, and the sinfulness of the flesh.
As the theologian and Bishop would reflect, the church temporal, that is the church here on earth, has a divine component to it. It is one that is seen in the fact that it is given life at the Pentecost by the outpouring of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that gathers, bringing together believers, and drawing them into communion and community. It is the Spirit that guides, guards, and protects it. Yet, it is still comprised of men and women on this side of perfection. Men, and women whose hearts, as John Calvin would say, are perpetual idol factories. Just because they have been redeemed, transformed by the power of the Spirit, does not mean they have risen above this world’s temptations, even with regard to the church.
As such, the church will still be subject to human frailties and weaknesses. So long as it is comprised of sinful humanity, it will be prone to wander, venturing from that which will make reformation an absolute necessity.
This, in turn, reminds us of an important fact: because the church is a mixed body, it is never pure, even in the midst of reformation. The closest we get to the idea of the purity of the church comes from its proximity to Christ. As such, the work of reformation is never done. It did not begin with Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, nor did it end with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. It did not suddenly draw to a close at the end of the Thirty-Year War with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. Thus, it must be perpetually reforming.
Here it is perhaps important to take a step back and look at the Latin. Reformanda is what is referred to as a gerundive. The idea of the gerundive is one which is foreign to the English langue, but it can, perhaps, best be described as a verbal adjective that tends to carry with it a certain sense of necessity or obligation. It is not simply that the church must be reformed, or that it would be nice if the church underwent reform. Rather, what it denotes is the idea that reform itself must happen.
What’s more is that we are looking at a word that is future passive. Reformed points to a past or present event where the church underwent a process of reformation. Now, it is looking forward towards the future, recognizing the fact that, though it has already undergone this process, it is a perpetual cycle of renewal and transformation, one which does not suddenly end, or become no longer necessary. The church reforms, and in that reformation, it recognizes that the next generation must continue, drawing back to what it is intended to be.
The passive voice is significant here as well. Had it been active the subject itself would be carrying out the action.It signifies the fact that there is an action that is done on the subject. This is important because it recognizes the fact that it though the church is reforming it is not the one doing the reforming. Instead, reformation is being done to it. This leads to the fundamental question of who is doing the reforming?
The answer is the Holy Spirit. Just as the believers do not give birth to the church, nor to they create it, the actual process of reformation does not begin with them. They are the vessels by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes His work through His indwelling, reforming through us. This makes the church the recipient of God’s grace through the Third Person of the Trinity.
These thoughts are perhaps best expressed by Van Lodenstein as he writes in his Contemplations of Zion, “The church desires not to be called reformata, or reformed, but reformanda, or being reformed. What a pure church it would become, which always was thus occupied.” The church should not desire to simply be reformed, but, rather, to be constantly reforming, undergoing a process of revival as the Reformers understood it, outside of the redefining of the term that would occur during the Second Great Awakening. By this process, it becomes as close as it can to what it is intended to be this side of heaven as it draws itself closer to God.
In this sense, what we come to recognize is that reformation is, at its core, a process of resurrection. The church, composed of believers, die to themselves, die to that which separates them from God, that which would pull them back to the world and away from Him, and, through His miraculous love, it is raised again in glory. Calvin expressed it like this, “The preservation of the church is accompanied by many miracles. So we ought to keep in mind that the life of the church does not exist apart from resurrection, yea, apart from many resurrections.”
According to the Word of God
Thus, this drawing itself closer to God is what is important. It is also the point that is sometimes missed when we truncate this expression down to simply Semper Reformanda, always reforming.
The inclination when we simply say “Always reforming” is to believe one of two things. The first is that we need to take on every new innovation that arises, to perpetually seek to modernize the church according to the current thoughts or notions of our day. It is to adopt and weave into place the popular philosophies of the present age in order to make the church more relevant. The second is that we need to reform or to change based on the dominant feelings that we have at any given time. That certainly has been a driving force within the church, particularly within the American tradition, that has reared its head to fundamentally transform it.
What we must recognize is that any reforming, any reformation, must be according to the Word of God. It isn’t about innovation or emotion, just like it was never about adhering to empty tradition. In fact, if we consider the Reformation that would begin under Martin Luther, it was never about that which was new. Rather, his intention was to draw the church back to the Scriptures, and the earliest expressions of the Christian life. It is, after all, through the Word that He chooses to reveal Himself and His purposes. It is through the Word that we find Christ and the nature of the communion that he intends for us. It is through His Word that we see the purest form of the church. It is His Word which is our only divinely inspired source of knowledge and wisdom, profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, that He may perfect us unto all the works He has intended for us. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Reform, true reform, cannot and does not occur separate from the principle of Sola Scriptura. It is through Scripture alone, the divinely inspired Word, that the Spirit guides us, and leads us to truth, drawing our attention to the things of God.
Here then we must not only turn from those things that would draw the church away from Christ, that would draw the church away from God, we must truly and sincerely repent of them. Luther, in his 95 Theses would open them with the following words, “When our Lord and Master Jesus said “Repent” (Mt. 4:17) he willed the entire life of the believer to be one of repentance.” It is a fitting away to begin the call for the church toward reformation. When we begin the process of repentance, we then recognize that we not only have fallen short of the glory of God, but that we must turn away from the things of this world, from the ways in which it tries to draw us away from the Word with its ideologies, philosophies, and inclinations. Repentance is, in no small part, the rejection of the flesh, the rejection of the world as we re-center ourselves in Christ, that we must once more focus on God and His will. We must return to the Scriptures to find Him where He is at, where He is nearest to us. Reformation does not occur apart from humility, recognizing that it is pride that separates us from God as we ignore His Spirit and His Word, as we ignore His stirrings.
The church is called to reform, it is called to reformation, not because it is intended to be a product of this world or its flights of fancy. Rather, it is called to reformation because we always need to draw back to God, to draw closer to Him. We must challenge our dominant assumptions and notions, our traditions and our innovations, making certain we have not created golden calves, these idols that we hold in greater esteem than we hold Scriptures, making certain that we have not deviated from the clear teachings of the Word with our modern ideologies and philosophies. Our conscience, like Luther’s, must be held captive by the Word of God if the work of the Spirit is to be done through us.
It is only in this way that we, as a reformed church, as a transformed church, can always be reforming…
As we consider another Reformation Day and our own place as churches that flowed from that stream of tradition, we must ask ourselves then what are we doing to keep reformation alive within our churches? What are we doing to humble ourselves before our Lord and His Word? Have we truly repented from those things that would deviate us from the Scriptures that we may be brought in line for them? Or have we found ourselves held captive by the flesh and this world? We must have honest conversations, willing to confront hard truths, holding nothing holy but the Triune God, nothing sacred save the Word of the Lord. It is then that we will cease to be obstacles to the power and the working of the Spirit…
Lord, grant this unto us all…