Noah D Burnett
Ecclesia Semper Reformanda, or “the church must always be reforming,” is a Latin phrase attributed to a 17th century pastor from the Netherlands. This little phrase, written in a small devotional journal almost 150 years after Martin Luther took a stand against the Roman Catholic Church, would become an anthem of Bible-believing congregations all around the world. These three Latin words contain the same idea that the apostle Paul was stressing to the saints in Corinth.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Paul knew how easy it would be for the church to forget even the gospel. It was his intention to make sure that all the believers in Corinth continually came back to dwell on the truth of the gospel. This idea of reforming is consistent in scripture, especially when we truly understand what we mean by reform. To reform something in our current culture usually means to make it better, but when we talk about the Protestant Reformation or reforming our theology we are talking about re-forming something to its intended state.
Biblical theology cannot be “improved” upon as if we can add something to true biblical theology that isn’t already there, but it is easily distorted. So, when we say “Reformed Biblical theology” we mean biblical theology that has been intentionally tested against the original meaning of the text. It has been formed back to its original meaning...re-formed.
Now with this in mind, lets look again at the phrase “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda”. In the16th century, Martin Luther began a reforming of the Church to its intended biblical state. This was not a momentary reform, a one time and “that should do it” type of deal. Luther and the other Reformers all understood that this had to be an ongoing process by which the saints would continually evaluate the current temperature of the church, test that against Scripture, and then re-form accordingly.
Obviously the Church will never be completely reformed until Jesus returns, but just as St. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Whitefield, Spurgeon, continually re-formed their thinking around Scripture, so must we. The Scriptures are our only hope of knowing who God is. Some will argue this point by saying “what about prayer or fellowship?” and they would be right to assume that both of those actions greatly help us know God more. But the only reason we know how to pray rightly, or how to carry out fruitful fellowship, is because we have a right understanding of how Scripture has instructed us to do so. Without consistently realigning our hearts and thoughts with the Word of God, we inevitably will drift into misunderstanding and sin.
...but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
“'...Return, O faithless children, declares the LORD; for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion...” Jeremiah 3:14
Whether we look to the Old Testament, where Israel is called to re-form to the covenant they had with God, or the New Testament, where the church is called to constantly re-form itself to the gospel, we will always find the idea of semper reformanda. The Church must always be reforming, back to the Word, back to the gospel, back to God, and now more than ever.