What's Reformed??

By Peter H. Holtvlüwer

This October 31 the Reformation turns 499 years old, which means we start working on year 500! And that will bring many celebrations and commemorations over the next twelve months – and rightly so. The Reformation was a tremendous work of God’s grace and its good fruit is still with us today. We are Reformed Christians who belong to Reformed churches and strive to serve the Lord in all of life in a Reformed manner.

Yet, what does that really mean? It seems to me that there is confusion about this today. Those nearing retirement (and older) still use the word “Reformed” regularly and passionately, those in their twenties hardly at all, and those in-between sometimes have mixed feelings about it. It can be received as a positive or a negative or with a careless, “meh.” Could you give a good definition of “Reformed”? Are we losing our love for the Reformation and all things Reformed? As we enter the big 500th year anniversary, it’s good to get back to basics and clarify what being Reformed is really all about.


Always reforming?

The word “Reformed” has often been connected with the Latin phrase, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” which means, “the church reformed, always reforming.” Some have taken this to mean that the church must always be changing, searching for new ideas, new ways of “being” church as society changes. Nothing is to stay the same permanently. Worship practices should adjust to meet the needs of a new generation, the confessions (or parts of them) should be discarded and new ones made to match the new understanding of Scripture. Innovation, staying current with trends is the name of the game. You can find more than one web page of churches with “Reformed” in their name but who do not act, speak, or think much like the original churches of the Reformation. Is that Reformed?  

It may help to know that this phrase was not used by the Reformers (it isn’t found until the mid-seventeenth century) but yet they certainly used the verb “reform” and spoke often of reforming the church. For some hundreds of years by that time, the Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt in many ways. Men like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others spoke out against this corruption and insisted that the church turn back to what it once had been. They called for the church to re-model or re-form itself according to the teachings of Holy Scripture – and that’s what the word “Reformed” refers to!


Recovery not novelty

That little prefix “re” is key and means: going back to something! And that something was and is the gold standard of God’s Word. “Reform” is literally to “form again” and was never about constant change or inventing new practices but simply and purely a return to doing things God’s way! It’s all about recovery of the church – in its beliefs, its worship, its government, its activities – and never about introducing novelties! This concept is at the heart of the entire Reformation and what gave it its name.  

Is there value in the idea of “the church reformed, always reforming?” Yes, because our sinful hearts always wish to draw us away from the pure worship of God. Every Christian needs to be “always reforming,” going back to Scripture for guidance in all of life and improving our obedience to it. In the same way, every church (which is only a body of redeemed sinners) needs to keep going back to the Word – not changing the standard but improving our obedience to it!  



Does this mean that Reformed churches never change? People sometimes complain that making changes in church life is like pulling teeth – tedious and painful. Why is there a resistance to change among us? Should there be?

The Reformers certainly were looking for change – but a change back to the way God had designed things! In that sense, every Reformed church should be open for change. We should be willing to examine our beliefs, worship, and practices and, where necessary, make changes in line with Scripture. But on the other hand, since the standard always remains the Bible, change in any of these areas may never be change for the sake of change or change to fulfill a mere human desire or to accommodate a man-made teaching.

Prior to the Reformation, it was the man-made teaching about purgatory that brought in the corruption of selling indulgences. It was the papal invention of Mary’s perfect innocence and perpetual virginity that brought in the perversion of Mary-worship. These abuses came in slowly, over time, and caused a lot of spiritual damage to Christians. Dutch Reformed churches since the great Reformation have gone through at least two other periods of deformation and corruption and if you look at the Scottish, English, German, or even the more distant Korean or Indonesian Reformed churches you’ll find the same bitter experiences.

The generation that God brings through a new reformation has much to be thankful for but make no mistake: that conflict comes at a great cost emotionally, among friends and family who are now estranged, and often financially as well. During those bad times, whole congregations and federations of churches drifted away from the Lord. Once bitten, twice shy. Reformed churches have learned the hard way to be cautious about change and to weigh things carefully before adopting it so as to avoid a new round of corruption and trouble. Is that so bad? Doesn’t that fit with the Bible’s command to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) and be on guard for any perversion of the gospel (Gal 1:6-10)?  


Is that Reformed??

On the other hand, we should not be suspicious about everything right away. New ideas should not be dismissed out of hand. This is where tensions can sometimes arise. An idea for an evangelism activity is proposed and the first thing heard is, “Is that Reformed?” Too often it’s not an honest question but a thinly veiled accusation, a put-down, simply because it’s something that person has never heard of. Or someone suggests a different way of organizing the Bible study groups and immediately the protest is heard, “That doesn’t sound very Reformed.”

These sorts of reactions are ways we can shut down speakers and leave little room for discussion. Without really wanting to engage the idea, we make it sound as if it’s out of bounds by declaring it to be unreformed – yet we have not actually analyzed it ourselves in the light of Scripture! Such knee-jerk “questions” and statements are themselves unreformed! Instead, ideas for improving our obedience to Scripture, our practice of the faith, our worship, our church government, should be encouraged and discussed openly and honestly with the Bible as our guide. It would be better to inquire in a spirit of charity, saying things like, “Tell me more about this idea. I’d like to hear where it comes from and how it will help us improve in obeying our Lord’s commands.”


Reasoned proposals

The problem with many ideas in our time is that they come with no support, with little thought other than saying defensively: “What’s wrong with it? Why can’t we do this?” Surely that approach is not Reformed either! To go by what “other churches” are doing or by our gut feeling is not enough by far. We have to first ask ourselves – does it line up with Scripture? How so? Will it help the church to better live and act according to God’s design for her?

Those who come with suggestions should do their homework and carefully think through how their proposal will help the church grow in her obedience to the Lord. They should be prepared to reason-out how their ideas are not only biblically sound but a way to really help the church in her various God-given tasks. Those who listen to the ideas should give them a fair hearing and, in a brotherly way, discuss and analyze their merits on the basis of God’s Word and the benefits of their application.


Check with the past

We also have a history of more than 2000 years in figuring out how to be Christians and church in this world – is it possible someone has evaluated this idea before? What has the church learned about this sort of thing in the past? After all, doesn’t the Lord teach us things through the history of his church-gathering work? The Bible itself teaches us to review this history (think of Psalm 78, or 105-107!). The leaders of the Great Reformation constantly went back to both Scripture and church history, to the teachings of the early church fathers. They were eager to learn from them and to be in harmony with all they taught that was sound and profitable (though they did not hesitate to part from them where they believed them to be off the mark).

We have to fight our current post-modern instinct to pooh-pooh the past, to consider it a bore and a waste of our effort. Instead, we should see history as a valuable resource, an opportunity to learn from our by-gone brothers and sisters. Of course, historical precedent or argument by itself doesn’t settle anything (it, too, needs always to be checked against God’s Word) but to ignore history or say “who cares?” is arrogant (as if we are wiser than they) and foolish (as if God’s work in their lives is of no consequence to us). Would we want Christians seventy-five or one hundred years from now to throw out what God has allowed us to learn in our generation? That would only lead to history repeating itself!


Cultural or biblical?

There’s one more point which perhaps needs its own separate editorial and that’s this: when we talk about things that are “Reformed” we need to distinguish cultural practices from biblical principles. Every ethnic group has its culture and that culture, one way or the other, affects the way we “do church.” Quite often we are unaware that such practices are unique to our ethnic group – we just think it’s “normal.”

The truth is, certain things are only “normal” to us! Some of us with Dutch roots eat peppermints during worship whereas the English think that’s gauche (they can’t even comprehend that we eat droppies!). Some Reformed churches stand for every song, some for one or two, some for none. We sing the Psalms on Genevan melodies with instrumental accompaniment, but many Scottish Presbyterians sing out of a metrical psalter without any accompaniment while others use a mixture of tunes. We teach our youth Catechism on a week-night but many North American Reformed churches teach these same truths right before or after Sunday morning worship.

Obviously, some of these examples are more serious than others because they pertain directly to biblical commandments (e.g. worship) and obedience to them. We can discuss and debate the benefits of each practice but none of them is more or less “Reformed” than the other. Apart from the matter of church candies, all of the above are applications of a biblical principle (the call to worship the Lord and instruct the next generation) that arise out of both conviction and culture. Singing Psalms is a biblical command (Col 3:16) and therefore Reformed, but how to sing them (Genevan, Scottish metre, or other) is mostly a matter of ethnic background. That’s not a bad thing or to be regretted, it just is. It’s not unbiblical or unreformed to sing the Psalms to different tunes – each federation of churches will work that out for themselves, taking into account also their past, present, and future. More could be said but let’s be careful not to quickly identify one of our practices as being exclusively Reformed when other different practices may be equally biblical.

As we celebrate the quincentennial gift of being Reformed, let’s do this with a renewed humility and appreciation for all that God has given us! Being Reformed means being biblical. In the church-building Spirit of Christ (1 Cor 12) and with an eye to the past, let’s carefully and gently work out the application of God’s commands and principles in today’s culture so that his Name is glorified in everything. That, too, is fully Reformed: Soli Deo Gloria! 

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