When politicians promise transformation, we should be apalled. When politicians promise reformation, we should listen carefully to learn how they define reformation, what they want to reform, and how they propose to make reformations.
Consider the different meanings and origins of “transform” and “reform.”
When we transform something, the changes we make make that something different.
mid-14c., “change the form of” (transitive), from Old French transformer (14c.), from Latin transformare “change in shape, metamorphose,” from trans “across, beyond” (see trans-) + formare “to form” (see form (v.)). Intransitive sense “undergo a change of form” is from 1590s. Related: Transformed; transforming.transform | Origin and meaning of transform by Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)
The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is an example of a transformation.
A reformation is less drastic.
c. 1300, “to convert into another and better form,” from Old French reformer “rebuild, reconstruct, recreate” (12c.), from Latin reformare “to form again, change, transform, alter,” from re- “again” (see re-) + formare “to form” (see form (n.)). Intransitive sense from 1580s.
Meaning “to bring (a person) away from an evil course of life” is recorded from early 15c.; of governments, institutions, etc., from early 15c. Related: Reformed; reforming. Reformed churches (1580s) usually are Calvinist as opposed to Lutheran. Reformed Judaism (1843) is a movement initiated in Germany by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Reform school is attested from 1859.reform | Origin and meaning of reform by Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com)
Reformation emphasizes restoration. In fact, as noun, that is clearly the definition of “reform.”
“any proceeding which brings back a better order of things,” 1660s, from reform (v.) and in some uses from French réforme. As a branch of Judaism from 1843.
Why should we be alarmed when politicians promise to transform us? When we try to use the power of government to transform other people, we risk violating their relationship with God. Consider this quote.
Religion can reform a person’s life, but it can never transform him. Only the Holy Spirit can transform!Aiden Wilson Tozer quote: Religion can reform a person’s life, but it can never… (azquotes.com)
When we try to use the government to transform others, we are trying to fundamentally transform what they believe and how they behave using force. That is, we are trying to use government to impose our religious beliefs. That won’t work, but the fruitless exercise of such force will hurt people.
To make the case a little clearer, here are several examples each of how the words “transform” and “reform” are used in the Bible.
Here the object is to accept the transformation of our minds by the Holy Spirit.
In fact, as Christians we should desire transformation by the Holy Spirit.
Why transformation? Such transformation makes us acceptable to our Creator so He can take us to heaven.
When Jeremiah prophesied the doom of Jerusalem, he called for the people to change their behavior. However, they needed the transformation of the Holy Spirit, and that was beyond what Jeremiah or any man could do. Even a king, if he destroyed all the pagan places of worship, executed the pagan priests, and prohibited the worship of pagan gods could not change the hearts of the people.
Here a lawyer named Tertullus is buttering up the governor.
As the following passage attests, before Christ died on the cross and the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was not yet freely available to believers.
Why does this last passage end with “reformation” instead of “transformation”? It is interesting to compare translations. Many use the word “reformation.” Some speak of a new order. Others speak of “restoration.” Some speak of the “New Covenant.” Because the sacrifices and gifts were designed to remove our sins and make us like Adam and Eve before they sinned, “restoration” might be a better word than “reformation.” However, the new order was the New Covenant, and that was quite a transformation.