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Semper Reformanda: A Call to Faith and Repentance
The so-called 'reformed' evangelicals in Canada need a Reformation
Semper Reformanda: Always Being Reformed According to the Word of God
What makes someone ‘reformed’?
Is it the result of formally adopting a particular Confession as a church? Or memorizing the 5 Solas? Quoting faithful saints of the past? Standing in a particular liturgical tradition?
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Perhaps growing a beard?
The question is worth considering, especially for those who consider themselves ‘heirs of the reformation’ (as I do).
If we were to summarize the substance of the Reformation (an admittedly bold move), we might do so with the historic words, semper reformanda. This pithy Latin phrase, translated as ‘always being reformed’, captures the necessary heartbeat of a ‘reformed’ individual and congregation.
Michael Horton writes that the term, ‘semper reformanda’ first appeared in a 1674 devotional written by a Dutch man named Jodocus van Lodenstein. The full phrase was “The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God.”. Horton makes an important observation regarding the meaning of this phrase. He writes, “The verb is passive: the church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” by the Spirit of God through the Word.” In other words, it is by the Spirit working through the word that the true church of Jesus Christ is being reformed, and ‘conformed to the image of Christ’ (Rom 8:29). He is the substance and goal of our teaching.
All of this Latin talk might be making you suspicious. ‘Why’, you might ask, ‘are we speaking in language and categories I haven’t read in my Bible?’ That is a good question, and I want to put this helpful phrase into biblical categories. A life that is ‘always being reformed according to the word of God’ is what the bible refers to as a life of ‘faith and repentance’. The phrase ‘semper reformanda’, then, is a summary of the Christian life; one of faith in the Son of God, and repentance unto Him.
Semper Reformanda Does Not Mean Always Changing
In our current cultural climate, change for change-sake is often considered inherently good. Slap the term ‘progressive’ onto a group or set of values, and they seem to automatically inherit moral superiority. To say that you are progressive, generally, is to say that you are ‘moving in the right moral direction’. The reason this progressive language has moral weight is that large portions of society have accepted the idea that the past is inherently bad, and the future is inherently good. Wildly successful political campaigns have been run on a single word: change.
That is why people can use the threat of being on the ‘wrong side of history’ when talking about moral issues. The assumption is, society is ‘progressing’ morally, and you don’t want to be left behind. The important take away from all of this is that change is good in itself.
This is not true, and this is not what semper reformanda means.
It does not mean that the church should always be willing to change for change sake. It means the church should always be willing to walk in faith and repentance, according to the word of God.
This is, in fact, a profoundly biblical teaching. A church that is not being reformed according to the word of God is not, in fact, a church.
The Christian life is a life of Faith and Repentance
The first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses was, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent’’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”. This is significant. When he said, ‘entire’ life of the believer, I think he meant both that every area of their life is committed to repentance, and for the entire length of their life. We could say, ‘Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ calls Christians to repent in every area of their life, for all of their life’.
Faith and Repentance are inseparable
According to Scripture, faith and repentance are inseparable, and two-sides to the same coin. We see this clearly in Mark 1:4-15, the verse Luther referenced in his first theses:
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
In Paul’s sermon in Athens, he says, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,”, and we learn further in the text that “…some men joined him and believed”. (Acts 17:30,34). The repentance that God commanded, and the belief of those who heard the gospel, were inseparable.
John Murray rightly concluded, “The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance…It is impossible to disentangle faith and repentance. Saving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith.”.
All of life is a life of faith and Repentance
Paul is very clear that faith ought to characterize our entire lives as Christians:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
The implication of this is that our lives will also be characterized by repentance.
Ongoing Need for Repentance
The ongoing need for reform according to the word of God is rooted in the reality of indwelling sin. Jesus plainly taught his disciples to live lives that were characterized by confession of sin and repentance:
“Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt 6:11-12)
In fact, to deny the ongoing need for repentance is to deny the faith:
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
Faith and Repentance in Every Area of our Lives
Compartmentalization is the enemy of faith and repentance. We might look at the folly of the catholic church and scoff, “Mary worship? How silly. Indulgences? Who goes for that? Papal infallibility? Ya right.” But we are not called to repent of other people’s sins, but our own.
Jesus himself confronts the human tendency towards compartmentalizing our lives in two sections of Scripture:
“And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:17–22)
The rich young man did not consider Jesus a greater treasure than the wealth he would give up. On a scale, it wasn’t worth it to him. Jesus knew to call him to faith and repentance there.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39)
Jesus Christ calls us to faith and repentance in every area of our lives. We are called to love him and treasure him more than anything or anyone in our lives. This is why compartmentalizing our lives is so dangerous. We are willing to pick up our cross in everything except that. But that area of our lives is precisely where faith and repentance must be demonstrated.
Faith and Repentance in light of All of Scripture
Another way we avoid genuine faith and repentance is by ignoring or minimizing parts of God’s word. We either hide parts of our lives from the light of God’s word, or in this case, hide the light of parts of God’s word. A life or ministry that settles for faith and repentance according to part of Scripture, and not all, is in no meaningful sense ‘reformed’. Jesus himself pointed out this temptation towards hypocrisy:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matt 23:23)
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was seen in that they intentionally neglected ‘the weightier matters of the law’. These were justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They kept part of the law (which was easy), but not the whole (which was hard).
A Call for Reform
What has become obvious over the past several years is that the so-called ‘reformed’ evangelical church in Canada, of which I am a part, is desperately in need of reform.
That is, we are in need of genuine, Spirit-wrought repentance and faith.
For all our books and conferences, confessions and quotes, I fear we are as averse to sincere repentance as the papists of the 16th century.
Where obedience was costly, we developed excuses, and went so far as to twist the Scriptures to justify our treason. To date, the mishandling of Romans 13 by so-called reformed pastors must go down as one of the greatest exegetical failures in church history. Unbiblical, authoritarian presuppositions, rooted in unbelief and shared by the pagan world, were simply assumed. When sincere questions were raised about this dubious interpretation, false and ironic accusations of being ‘historically novel’ were launched.
Right. Because limiting and defining human authority, and our corresponding submission, is a new idea.
As if we couldn’t descend further into treachery, we turned our guns against the flock of God. The gatekeepers of reformed evangelicalism had the arrogance to publicly proclaim that personal medical decisions were not religious matters, and therefore, not matters of conscience.
This asinine declaration only served to flaunt our ignorance. Any sincere Christian should know that everything is religious. There is no square inch of our lives over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not cry ‘Mine’ (A. Kuyper). To compartmentalize a portion of our lives as ‘religious’, and other parts as ‘non-religious’ is to adopt profoundly pagan and anti-Christian ideals and practises.
Further, it is to display a callous indifference to the flock of God, no doubt to preserve oneself from controversy. But to bind another’s conscience wrongfully is to cause them to sin. And to cause a little one to sin is, according to Jesus, a heinous sin (Mark 9:42).
We diligently scoured the pages of church history, carefully selecting quotes from long-dead men of faith to establish our theological pedigree and justify our positions.
Then, like the hypocrites we are, we feigned ignorance regarding present realities staring us in the face (Luke 12:56).
The world’s leading scholars on non-conformists and dissenters publicly opposed the few brave souls who refused to offer up idolatrous compliance to the State.
We claimed that we were in the lineage of the great reformers, but when men like Pastor Jacob Reume, Pastor Aaron Rock, Pastor James Coates, and Pastor Tim Stephens insisted on the Lordship of Jesus Christ over Caesar, we condemned them.
Like the hypocrites of Jesus day, historical pedigree serves not as a model for imitation, but apparently, a badge for self-exultation (cf. John 8:39-40).
While claiming to admire the thunderous preaching of brave men of the past, we condemned the ‘tone’ of anyone who would dare speak with moral clarity. John Knox can be celebrated for the trepidation his preaching caused the rulers of his day, but God-forbid a pastor become ‘political’ by challenging the rulers of our own.
We claim to admire, on this Reformation Day, the boldness of Luther to insist on a conversation amongst the clergy. Yet we actively opposed dissenting voices, and undermined any meaningful conversation amongst even confessionally aligned brothers. Instead of an open debate in a time of crisis, we tirelessly committed ourselves to shaping the narrative, always the arbiters of what was acceptable discourse. Luther stood before tribunals, and we censor blogs.
And even now, after failing in every regard, we avoid repentance by hoping the whole thing goes away.
But God is not mocked.
What we don’t need are more hypocrites playing ‘reformed dress-up’.
We need humble, bold men and women we are committed, by God’s grace, to a life of faith and repentance.
Repentance and faith in all of life, according to all of Scripture. This is what it means to be reformed.
“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)
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