The True Reformers
by Burk Parsons
Semper reformanda has been hijacked. It is one of the more abused, misused, and misunderstood slogans of our day. Progressives have captured and mutilated the seventeenth-century motto and have demanded that our theology, our churches, and our confessions be always changing in order to conform to our ever-changing culture. However, semper reformanda doesn’t mean what they think it means.
Semper reformanda doesn’t mean “always changing,” “always morphing,” or even “always reforming.” Rather, it means “always being reformed.” When it was first used, semper reformanda was part of the larger statement ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed and always being reformed). To make the statement more clear, the phrase secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God) was later added, making the statement “The church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It grew out of a pastoral concern that we as God’s people would always be reformed by God’s Word—that our theology would not be merely theoretical knowledge but that our theology would be known, loved, and practiced in all of life. Simply put, that our reformed theology according to God’s Word would be always reforming our lives.
Fundamentally, Reformed theology is theology founded on and fashioned by God’s Word. For it is God’s Word that forms our theology, and it is we who are reformed by that theology as we constantly return to God’s Word every day and in every generation. At its core, this is what the sixteenth-century Reformation was all about, and it’s what being Reformed is all about—confessing and practicing what God’s Word teaches. God’s Word and God’s Spirit reform the church. That said, mere men are not the true reformers, but rather they are stewards and servants of God’s reformation.
In this sense, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others were not reformers. Luther and Calvin did not boldly set out to reform the church; they humbly submitted to the reforming truth of the Word and the reforming power of the Spirit. The Word and the Spirit reformed the church in the sixteenth century, and they have been reforming the church ever since. Luther and Calvin were the ones who helped point the church back to Scripture, and Scripture alone, as the infallible authority for faith and life.
The Reformation isn’t over, nor will it ever be over, because reformation—God’s Word and God’s Spirit reforming His church—will never end. God’s Word is always powerful and God’s Spirit is always working to renew our minds, transform our hearts, and change our lives. Therefore, the people of God, the church, will be always “being reformed” according to the unchanging Word of God, not according to our ever-changing culture.