Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda 

Jodocus van Lodenstein first penned the phrase, ‘Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda’, while writing a devotional book in 1674. That phrase means, ‘the church reformed, always reforming.’ Van Lodenstein. a Dutch minister in the Reformed Church of the United Provinces, pastored a congregation in Ultrecht, Holland from 1653 until his death in 1677. It was not his intention to invent a new slogan, but he simply wanted to emphasize what should be the goal of a reformed church. Most reformed ministers in the world today are aware of that phrase and realize that the life of a reformed congregation or denomination is dynamic—not static.  

It would be wonderful if that phrase was truly taken to heart by reformed pastors, churches, and denominations, but, alas, it does not seem to be. Last week, I listed the views and principles that reformed churches should hold as a result of the various controversies that have sharpened the Church through the ages. What I have observed is that most denominations have become somewhat provincial and have restricted their reforming of the church to their own national or geographical distinctives. That is not a church that is ‘always reforming’ and, ultimately, that is not a ‘church reformed.’ A true reformed church must be reforming in terms of the great controversies and issues that have shaped the Church universal—and not just the issues that have affected the churches in a region or nation. 

I am an American, but a Southerner. I love the Southern Presbyterians and consider their time as almost a gilded age. James Henley Thornwell, Robert Lewis Dabney, John L. Girardeau, William S. Plumer, T. V. Moore and numerous others were collectively bright stars who have greatly benefitted the Church. Yet, I am not a Southern Presbyterian in distinction from the other great movements. I am Pauline, Augustinian, Reformed, Calvinistic, Puritan, New Side, and Old School. I am a Presbyterian, but my spiritual convictions embrace many people who were not Presbyterians—George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, and numerous others. 

What I am proposing is that the true church today, to reference one example, must be in agreement with the New Side ministers of the 18th century. The great issue at that time was whether the Great Awakening was a true work of God. The opponents of the Great Awakening pointed to certain excesses, abuses, and false conversions as supposed proof that revival was not God-sent. The same argument could be made against the labors of the Apostles and Simon Magus would be a chief example. He seemed to believe for a period of time, but he tried to purchase the power to work miracles and was soundly rebuked by Peter, “May your silver and gold perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20). Opposing the Great Awakening because of excesses and false conversions would be the same thing as blaming Peter for Simon Magus whose heart was still under the dominion of Satan. Of course, there were excesses and false conversions during the Great Awakening. Wherever Christ builds a church, the devil erects a chapel. That is true in the Scripture and in church history. Yet, all Christian churches wherever they are in the world should be in favor of the Great Awakening because it was a supernatural manifestation of the grace of God that transformed thousands of sinners in the 18th century and shaped American Christianity for almost 300 years. In one way or another, Christians and Christian churches throughout the world have benefitted greatly from what the Lord did in that revival. Opposing the Great Awakening is tantamount to opposing God Himself. Even Rabbi Gamaliel, the Pharisaic teacher of the law and mentor of Saul of Tarsus, told the Jewish Sanhedrin when they were persecuting the apostles: “For if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you will be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39). The Great Awakening was clearly a movement of God and to oppose it is fighting against God. 

Someone might ask, “Yes, but who disagrees with you about the Great Awakening?” Well, a lot of reformed ministers disagree; a lot of reformed churches disagree; a lot of reformed seminary professors disagree; and, a lot of reformed denominations disagree. The issue was decided by God answering with fire as He did for Elijah in the contest with the prophets of Baal. Remember, the New Side ministers were the supporters of the Great Awakening. The Old Side ministers were those who disagreed with the Great Awakening. Then, there were also a number of ministers who “ran with the hares and hunted with the hounds.” They did not want to be called either Old Side or New Side. There still are many ministers like that today. I am not going to name names and reference denominations that disagree with me and Vanguard about the New Side ministers. Yet, I know of too many ministers, theologians, and denominations do so and they say, “Well, we agree with the Old Side ministers. We are Old Side-Old School.” That is a very misinformed position.

Now, what I want to state unequivocally is that these various issues down through church history stand together and fall together. A minister, church, seminary, or denomination that thinks they can pick and choose which issues they will support and which they will neglect is deceiving himself (themselves). For instance, there is a well-known reformed denomination in the US that has a reputation for doctrinal fidelity. That denomination has always been lukewarm at best concerning the Great Awakening. Not surprisingly, that denomination has numerous theological problems within their ranks at this time. There are various presbyteries in that denomination that are overrun with the Federal Vision. How could this be? Because the Holy Spirit alone can enable us to “contend earnestly for the faith once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). Yet, anyone who rejects the work of the Holy Spirit in such a wonderful period of revival as the Great Awakening is hardly going to be so full of the Spirit as to remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). In other words, no one can really support Old School theology if they deny the New Side emphasis on revival and  evangelism. 

Then, there is another reformed denomination that claims to support the Great Commission, but at this juncture in the life of that denomination they cannot even agree on what the gospel is and whether missionaries should evangelize or assist in economic development. There are some denominations in the US that take their cue for what the church should be from their foreign motherland rather than from the Word of God. Other denominations will focus on one of the distinctives listed above—such as “we are Puritans” or “we are Calvinists”—and will neglect all the others. That type of position always leads to a poorly formed minister, church, or denomination. A Christian is mature when he bears all the fruit of the Spirit and a denomination is best that agrees with the whole counsel of God.    

Someone might object, “But you are making everything depend upon certain events that have happened in church history. We are just going to stick with the Bible.” I dealt with that matter last week. The Apostles left the whole depository of Christian truth to the Church with the completion of the canon of Scripture, but the Church soon fell away because the “holy men of old who were moved by the Holy Spirit” all died. The great controversies enabled the church to work through the Scriptures in order to prove what the right position is. In each one of those controversies, the right side appealed to Scripture for their proof and the wrong side twisted Scripture to their harm. Study each controversy out in detail and you will see what I mean. So, I certainly believe it all goes back to Scripture, but that does not prevent me from also saying that I believe Augustine, Calvin, the Reformers, the Puritans, the New Side, and the Old School proponents all interpreted Scripture correctly. We agree with Sola Scriptura, but the correct interpretation of Scripture is one—not many.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Please send any contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

If you are interested in attending the 300th anniversary of Samuel Davies’ birth to be held in Richmond, Virginia on November 3, 2023, please let me know. Space will be limited and you will need to register in advance.  

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