Once Reformed; Now Deformed?

Martin Luther’s mighty words still ring out today:

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And 500 years and one day after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church in Germany, I must pose a question: Is our faith in the right Man that Luther praised in his famous hymn? Or has our faith changed into a faith that trusts our own theological musings?

Allow me to explain my meaning before continuing. It was right around a year ago when my sister and I were sitting in a little coffee shop in downtown Springfield, Missouri, and I overheard a guy say the following words to someone else: “My view of the atonement.” Now on their own they don’t say much, but I stopped overhearing him at this point, because all I wanted to tell him was, “No one cares about your view of the atonement. The real question is: What does the Bible say about the atonement?”

I worry that in our zeal to continue reforming the church–to always be reforming the church–we lose sight of what the original reformation was all about. Four years after Luther posted his theses against the Catholic church, the church called him to account for his views at what was known as the Diet of Worms. One historian recounts, “This was a difficult moment for Luther, not so much because he feared imperial power but rather because he feared God. To dare to oppose the entire church and the emperor, whose authority had been ordained by God, was a dreadful act.”[1]

In fact, what is clear from reading the works of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin is that they had a HIGH regard for the governing authorities. Most of the theological writings of the day were addressed to those in positions of power. One example will suffice: “A humble exhortation to the most invincible Emperor Charles V, and the most illustrious Princes and other Orders, now holding a Diet of the Empire at Spires that they seriously undertake the task of restoring the Church, presented in the name of all those who wish Christ to reign, by Dr. John Calvin.”[2] Their original goal was not to break away from the Catholic Church. They wanted to fix the problems within the Catholic Church, or rather, they wanted the leaders of the Catholic Church to put their suggestions into practice, and thus restore the Catholic Church to its former place.

As we see from history, however, that did not happen. The Catholic Church continued as it was, though I think at this point it is safe to say that it is slightly more cleaned up now than it was 500 years ago. The Reformers and their followers were persecuted by the Catholic Church for at least a century following the posting of the 95 Theses. However, even today the phrase, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” will be heard. If we choose to use it, I would argue that we use it the way the original reformers would have used it if they had known it as a motto.

Robert Godfrey writes,

The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming) has been used so often as to make it a motto or slogan. People have used it to support a surprising array of theological and ecclesiastical programs and purposes. Scholars have traced its origins to a devotional book written by Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. . . .

So what did van Lodenstein mean by his famous phrase reformed and always reforming? Probably something like this: since we now have a church reformed in the externals of doctrine, worship, and government, let us always be working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God. Whatever other meanings may be made of this phrase, this original meaning is well worth pondering and preserving.[3]

This is where I want to camp for the remainder of my time today.

The original battle cry of the Reformation was the following (originally in Latin): “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone.” Allow me to break it down quickly: “We don’t deserve it, so we must believe it, but Christ accomplishes it, which the Scriptures foretold, so only God deserves praise for it.” Even our belief is ultimately a gift of God. What you don’t see in those five items is anything that exalts man, anything that gives man undue credit, anything that screams, “We gotta earn this!” What it does scream is, “God is in control and God gave us His Word so we can learn rightly!”

If we are to be “always reforming,” our reformations must happen in this light. It must be for God’s glory–through Christ alone–because of grace, exhorting people to believe, and pulling everything from Scripture. When we make comments like, “My view of the atonement…” we are already outside of the parameters for viable reformation. My view is often at odds with God’s view, and if your view is God’s view, why don’t you just call it that by saying, “This is how Scripture describes the atonement”?

By always talking about “our views” we remove the local church from the picture. Remember that the Reformation was to repair the Catholic Church, not to undermine it? All reformations must occur in the context of the church. This leads to four connected points, each of which could have whole articles written on them (but I will spare you at the moment).

  • We can’t reform apart from the church because apart from the church there’s nothing to reform.
  • We can’t reform the theology of the church if we are not reforming our lives.
  • We can’t reform our lives if we are not close to God.
  • We can’t be close to God apart from the local church.

I titled this article “Once Reformed; Now Deformed?” not as a criticism, but as a statement followed by a question. Are we going to continue reforming, or allow outside sources and influences to deform us into the Roman Catholic Church of 500 years ago?

So, if you want to be a Reformer for the next 500 years of the church’s existence, this is the call: Plug into a local church body, get close to God, seek to live like God, and speak and write and preach the truths of the original Reformation and watch God move!

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 34.

[2] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1954), 184.

[3] W. Robert Godfrey, “What Does Semper Reformanda mean?” http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-does-semper-reformanda-mean/.

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