Semper Reformanda – “Always Reformed”

The Most Misused Motto in the Church Today

In the recent years, the church in Malawi has seen a number of changes particularly with respect to doctrine(s) in the various churches represented across the country.  An examination of these changes indicates that there is a subtle but radical shift towards liberalism in many of our churches especially the well established mainline denominations.  Instead of being the buttress of truth described in 1 Timothy 3:15, the church has become a proponent of worldly philosophies and doctrines of men (most of which are being imported from liberal denominations in the West).

It is sad to note that the proponents of these changes often claim semper reformanda (“always reformed”) as their motto.  This is a phrase that is commonly heard among Protestant Christians around the world whether conservative or liberal.  The conservative wing of the Protestant Church on one hand uses semper reformanda to encourage the Church towards a more biblical definition and application of what it means to be Reformed.  The liberal wing on the other hand, uses semper reformanda to encourage the Church towards a more “progressive” definition of what it means to be Reformed mainly as a means of justifying their capitulation to the “spirit of the age.”

My plea to all Christians in all the churches across Malawi is to emulate the example of the Berean Christians recorded for us in Acts 17:11.  The Bible tells us that the Jewish Christians in Berea were “…more noble than those in Thessalonica…” because “…they received the Word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” The Church (Christians) in Berea examined the Scriptures daily checking to make sure that what Paul was teaching them was in agreement with the Word of God.  Every Christian who cares about the glory of God, the honor of His Word and the good of the true Church of Jesus Christ must do the same.

Yes, the church needs to be reformed.  But that reformation must be according to the Word of God.  Semper reformanda speaks of the exhortation given us in Jude 3 “to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”  The essence of it simply stated is that the church always needs to be reformed (passive tense, not “reforming”) by the work of the Holy Spirit according to the Word of God which is unchanging and unchangeable.  Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) was at the very heart of the Reformation that took place in the 16th Century.  The Reformation did not advocate change for its own sake.  Rather, it condemned the Roman Catholic Church for accumulating and bringing into the church so many new doctrines and practices which were unprecedented in the history of the ancient or the New Testament church.  Thus the Reformation advocated for a return to the Root, a return to the Scriptures.  That’s what semper reformanda is all about.  The full sentence goes like this in Latin, Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei translated in English as “The Reformed church, always being reformed according to the Word of God.”  We need to remember that true reformation is a monergistic work of God mediated through His Word by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in talking about the need to “always be reformed,” we must keep in mind the following:

1.    The Word of God is the primarily instrument of reformation: True reformation begins with a return to the Word of God. It is not the ingenuity of man, but the power of the Word of God.  We are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2) by submitting ourselves in every way to the Word of God in which His “good and acceptable and perfect will” has been revealed to us.  This can only happen as we saturate our minds and our hearts with the Word of God and submit to what He says to us as His people (the Church).

I appeal to you therefore, brothers by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

2.    God is the singular agent and initiator of true reformation: The church cannot reform itself.  The Lord God must do the work of reforming the church.  He does not need any help.  He can and does whatever He does according to the counsel of His will.  He does not need to consult with us.  Neither does He seek or need our help even to change us.  He is the Sovereign Lord and He does whatever He pleases, whenever He pleases and with whomever He pleases and however He pleases.  Our response must be one of worship and adoration to Him and all His works.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?”  “Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?”  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be glory forever.  Amen (Romans 8:33-36).

3.    Christianity is a historic Faith: The Christian faith is not a novel religion whose future and relevance is dependent on the innovative gimmicks of the 21st Century men and women.  No!  Christianity is rooted in history.  It is a “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It cannot be improved upon because it does not need any improvement.  Times and places may change, but the Christian faith and its core doctrines, solidly rooted and anchored in the Word of God, will remain the same.

Beloved, although I was eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.  For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).

We need to pay close attention to the last phrase of this sentence:  “The Reformed church, [being] reformed according to the Word of God.” We must agree with  the Reformers that it is the church that needs to be reformed according to the Word of God and not vice versaAs sinful creatures, we constantly need to be reformed according to God’s Word. The image of God in us which was marred by sin in the Fall must increasingly be restored by the work of the Holy Spirit according to the Word of God “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  The church is created, sustained and reformed according to the Word of God through and through.  It cannot be the other way round.


NOTE: This article has been adapted from a longer article published in the denominational newsletter of the Associated Presbyterian Church: (pages 8-11).