One of the significant theological slogans that emerged out of the Reformation was Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda (i.e. “The church reformed, always reforming”). It represented nothing more than the Reformers’ desire for the church to return to sound biblical theology. They never thought of their theological work as devising something altogether new. Their intent was singular – renewing or reviving the church according to the saving truths of the Word of God.
Reformers knew that the church had become corrupt, and a change in the church’s beliefs and ministry was critical. Hence, they worked relentlessly to have the church reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God. John Calvin wrote in the preface of his tract, The Necessity for Reforming the Church:
“We maintain, then, that at the commencement when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and who, by their ministry, founded and reared our churches those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete. We maintain that the use of the sacraments was in many ways vitiated and polluted. And we maintain that the government of the Church was converted into a species of foul and insufferable tyranny.”
In that article, Calvin’s greatest attempt was to express “how to restore the Church to its proper state.” He dealt with four topics, which he remarked as “soul and body” of the church. He referred to the topics of worship and salvation as the “soul” of the church, while sacraments and church government were called the “body” of the church. He sought to call for prompt actions to remedy the evils in the church related to worship, salvation, sacraments and church government.
One of the most significant outcomes of the Reformation was the prominence that the preaching of the Word received in the church worship services. In the late-medieval period, sermons were not the common feature of church worship. People had to go out of the church into open fields to hear preachers. Such preachers [e.g. Bernardino of Siena (1380– 1444); Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498)] faced excommunication and even execution. In those days, people went to church to see ceremonies attached to Mass. Preaching was so neglected that it virtually ceased to exist in the church. However, Reformation brought preaching of the Word from the obscurity and secrecy of the fields back into the worship service of the church. The Reformers’ battle for the Word of God had reinstated its preaching to its rightful place in the church.
The Reformers would not leave the souls of the spiritually hungry churchgoers in the hands of irresponsible clergymen who were not keen to feed them with the Word. So, like the faithful and concerned shepherds, the Reformers strived – even though it would mean death to them – to nourish the flock of God with the truths of the Holy Scriptures. Soon the activities of the churches, where the Reformers had laboured, became thoroughly Wordcentred. The proclamation of God’s Word became their greatest concern. In Saint Pierre’s Church of Geneva, where Calvin ministered, the church building was rid of all the statues of saints, relics, crucifixes and even the altar where the Mass was conducted. Even the walls and pillars were whitewashed to hide Rome’s unbiblical iconography. A wooden pulpit was brought into the church and was placed in such a way that the worshippers would be seated around it. By placing the pulpit at the centre from which the sermon would be preached, Scripture was given centre stage. Such changes were also made in other churches in the surrounding areas. Thousands of sermons were preached by the Reformers, thus making available to God’s flock the indispensable means of grace that provided them with salvation, sanctification, wisdom, comfort and revival.
Indeed, the Reformers were eager to get the church aligned to the Scriptural depiction of its faith and practice. Their efforts were not in vain. Eventually, Reformed Confessions of Faith (such as the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms) were drawn up to guide the church in the truths of God’s Word. These standards of faith testify that the Reformers’ efforts to reform the church were truly a movement to bring the church back to biblical theology. A Reformed church is a church that yields to the doctrines of Scripture. Churches in all ages and in all places must be committed to remain faithful to Scriptural doctrines and living – all the more so because of the Scriptural warning that false teachers will arise to bring damnable heresies in to the flocks of God (Matthew 24:5, 11, 24; Acts 20:29- 30; 1 Corinthians 11:19; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; Ephesians 4:14; Colossians 2:8, 18; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:3; Titus 1:11; 2 Peter 2:1).
Though the Roman Catholic Church had long presented itself as the true, biblical apostolic church, a host of its doctrines and practices were unknown to the apostles and the early church, not to mention the New Testament. So, the Reformers called the church to reform itself by submitting to the sound theology of the Holy Scriptures.
Sadly, many protestant churches of our time make changes to their faith, worship and practice based on contemporary culture. They attempt to legitimise the implemented changes by holding them up as consistent with the Reformation principle of “The church … always reforming”. This motto was never meant to justify unbiblical changes made to the faith, life and practice of the church. Instead, it demands that the church subject itself to the scrutiny of God’s Word and that it continually remain faithful to the truths of the Word of God. Making the timeless authority of God’s Word subordinate to changing cultural values and scientific theories is contrary to the Reformation motto of “always reforming”.
The true intent of Reformation is to reform the church back to Scripture. Even after 500 years, the church needs this same Reformation. The Bible is the only authority for the church, and it is sufficient and efficient to bring salvation and edification to His people.