Gospel Riches and Church Poverty



The inspired Bible was given to us, as the Apostle Paul said, “to make . . . wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus . . . that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:15, 17). It is as the Apostle Peter expressed it, to convey to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3f.) including escape from the world’s corruption and becoming nothing less than “partakers of the divine nature.” These are the “precious and exceeding great promises” which arc to make the Christian and the church incomparably wealthy.

The Biblical “Pattern” of the Catechism

Paul must “preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” and these “make all men see . . . the dispensation” of it (Eph. 3:8, 9). Every “scribe” who has been instructed in these things, the Lord said, “is like unto a man that is a householder who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (Matt. 13:52). The Church has been given the duty to preserve and convey to others riches and has been promised the continuing presence and help of the same Holy Spirit of truth who inspired the Scriptures in doing this (John 14:16, 17). It is from this point of view that we need to understand and appreciate the Church‘s continuing effort to preserve and formulate, defend, preach and teach its Biblical doctrines (or “teachings”) throughout the centuries and to all the world. Those doctrines, as taught and formulated in the Church creeds, show their historical conditioning, and need to be checked and sometimes corrected by comparison with the Bible, but they also show the Biblical riches they under the guidance of God‘s Spirit convey.

Our old Heidelberg Catechism does that remarkably effectively. Following the “pattern of sound (or ‘healthful’ – the Greek word from which our ‘hygiene’ comes) words” they found especially in the Apostle Paul’s great Roman letter, the Reformed fathers set about trying to teach a sadly confused people the gospel. Like Paul they began by showing in stark biblical expressions the extent of our sin and misery which make deliverance urgent, went on to show in greater detail the manner and extent of the Lord’s deliverance, and finally, taught how the delivered are to live their thanksgiving to God. That instruction book, which did its work so well that the Reformed churches adopted it as also their official creed, became the tool for systematically teaching and preaching the Biblical faith in the Reformed Churches for the next four centuries.

Lately, however, as our churches’ attitude toward the Bible becomes increasingly ambiguous, appreciation for this legacy as maintained and taught in this Catechism is also giving way to neglect and even occasional contempt. Although the Church Order states “The Heidelberg Catechism and its Compendium shall be the basis of instruction” (Art. 64c), this method has been “consciously abandoned” with the adoption of the “United Church School Curriculum” in which this Catechism teaching was reduced to two years (Acts 1973, p. 232). The new material provided showed more of a disposition to engage in a variety of educational experiments than to systematically teach the truths of the faith. The 1977 Synod adopted a new “Young Adult Curriculum” outlining and listing a vast variety of subjects and problems (8 pages of outline) for discussion study in young people’s classes. There is an unconscious irony about that. As the Christian and Church get away from trying to pattern their lives and thoughts according to God’s Word (II Tim. 1:13, 14) their problems may be expected to multiply and become more frustrating. A little survey of the 700-to 800-page Acts of our recent Synods will nicely demonstrate to anyone both the multiplication of problems and the churches’ inability to decide what to do about them. One doesnt have to look far to observe many individual examples of this phenomenon of the neglect of biblical doctrine multiplying people’s problems.

a. “Sin”

 The Bible and the Catechism, seeking to faithfully follow it, stress the doctrine of sin, its moral character, its inexcusability, its origin, extent and consequences. That blunt diagnosis is needed to shock reluctant people into realizing how serious the situation is and that something drastic must be done about it. Such an introduction to the faith is irritating and contrary to the temper of our time. It is unpsychological, poor salesmanship, we are told, and so we are being urged to modify or evade it. Our newer liturgical forms consistently tend to soften or minimize references to sin. The 1977 “Statement of Mission Principles” (Acts, p. 622) proposed by a study committee to our synod suggested that we approach people as “h0norable, redeemable creatures of God.” Have you ever heard of a more remarkable euphemism for a sinner who needs saving? Is a doctor likely to persuade a cancer patient to undergo surgery if he’ll tell him that he is a “potentially very healthy man”? Seeing this minimizing of sin may help us to understand why there is little sense of urgency about church services, and church education and why the results of our evangelism are often dismal.

b. “Deliverance”

The Bible and Catechism stress in detail and at length the way of salvation concentrating especially on the Person and Word of Christ. We are being told that such “scholastic” doctrines are both uninteresting and useless to people today who will respond much better to psychological and social remedies for what they “feel” are their problems or “hurts.” But if we insist on “knocking” the remedy which God’s gospel offers for man’s real need, sin, how can we expect our “ministry” of the gospel to be effective?

c. “Gratitude”

The subject of thankful Christian living to which Bible and Catechism bring us also gets short-circuited in this present development. Obscuring the seriousness of sin and casting doubts on or minimizing the Bible teachings of salvation can hardly move anyone to grateful Christian living. Jesus’ laconic remark in the Pharisee‘s house sums up the situation: “To whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little” (Luke 7:47). Not only has the motive for Christian living virtually disappeared, but its guide is also gone. The Bible and Catechism identify that guide as the revealed law of God which exposes both what has gone wrong and the direction in which it is to be corrected. But the notion of such a law is declared totally unacceptable in our time. Twentieth century people are never going to accept that kind of authoritarianism, least of all if it tries to tell us what we mayor may not do. And so we have to forget that law and try to modify the gospel, and the Church‘s and Christian’s way of life so as to eliminate it. Only so, we are told, may we hope to “win” and keep people for the faith today. The trouble is that the Bible says that man’s real predicament is the result of his revolt against God and His law his “declaration of independence” from God. To talk of a salvation—a “Christianity” which permits him to retain that independence, is a fraud. John stated that bluntly: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4).

The Role of the Canons of Dort

Relatively early in the history of the Reformed churches, church leaders appeared who resented this biblical emphasis upon the sovereignty of God and wanted to put greater emphasis upon the importance of man and his decision. The churches’ eventual reaction against this trend after a long controversy, produced the Canons of Dort. The “5 points” of those Canons were not some doctrinal minutiae which could be shelved after the controversy was past and popular interest in the church had shifted to other matters. Everyone of them deals with the question of how badly man needs saving and how extensive the salvation is. The Canon’s concern is the same as that of the Catechism. Some especially important points of the Bible’s teaching needed to be stated more precisely against the errors that were attacking them. The sovereignty of God, the depth and seriousness of man‘s sin and the extent of God’s saving grace needed to be stressed to keep the churches’ gospel from being impoverished and weakened by these errors. These teachings of the Canons have been widely neglected in our churches and today they are under frontal attack. Perhaps more significant than the misrepresentations and unsubstantial arguments of Dr. Boer‘s gravamen against that Creed, was what our 1977 Synod did with it. Although every delegate at that synod had signed a promise to maintain the doctrines of this creed and to “exert” himself to keep “the Church free from . . . errors” which attack those doctrines, the Synod decided to publish this attack on the creed throughout the churches for general discussion during the next three years without so much as giving a hint of reprimand for the irresponsible and disorderly attack. If the Church officially demonstrates such indifference to the confessed faith which it is supposed to treasure, should anyone be surprised when many both in and outside of the Church become indifferent to what it says and does? Such indifference to gospel riches cannot help members to appreciate it or non-Christians to desire it.

A “World-and-life” or Comprehensive, “Kingdom” Salvation

The Canons of Dort expressing the “5 points of Calvinism” were never intended to inventory the whole wealth of the gospel heritage. They had to deal with certain specific although central truths which were under attack and to delineate the boundaries that separated them from the Arminian errors. One who has taken notice of the boundaries of the State of Michigan has not thereby become acquainted with the whole State. The gospel, as we here observed, conveys to us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (II Peter 1:3), was given to make “the man of God . . . complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (II Tim. 3:17), reveals “the whole counsel of God,” including everything “profitable” (Acts 20:27, 28). Something of this wealth of implications of the gospel was especially appreciated by the Reformed-genius, Abraham Kuyper as he spoke of a Christian “world and life view.” The Reformation movement surrounding him reached out into such areas of society as education and government seeking to capture it all “for the King.” This gospel wealth has often been far too, little appreciated by evangelical Christians. Everyone of them is under the gospel injunction, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31). The remarkable development of the movement around Kuyper in many areas of society was a result of a return to the Bible and its teaching after the Church had long been impoverished by Liberal apostasy from it. No one was more aware of the complete dependence of these Christian educational, social and cultural efforts on Christ and His gospel than Abraham Kuyper. He warned his followers that without their “abiding in Christ and His Word” (John 15:4, 5, 7).

Today there is considerable talk and effort in some places about recovering this “world and life view,” this “kingdom vision.” Our churches are showing interest in a variety of social and political problems. That might appear to be a welcome development, an indication that we are recovering something of the lost gospel “treasure.” What considerably dampens ones enthusiasm for many of these efforts, however, is that the leadership in them at the same time often tends to devalue the Bible and its teachings. The result is that the social, political, and cultural efforts, often promoted with enthusiasm, but deprived of Biblical direction, soon turns out to be just a pale imitation of what the cultural humanists around us are saying and doing. Jesus said, “If . . . the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness” (Matt. 6:23).

Concluding Remarks

I have tried to outline, in a necessarily sketchy way, something of the gospel riches and our contrasting church poverty. There are indications that many throughout our churches are becoming aware of church conditions. Many older people are concerned and distressed about them. Many more are perhaps uneasy but don’t want to make the efforts needed for correction. Younger people such as you, are facing the situation and will have to face it much longer than we who are older. The gospel is and conveys infinite riches. There is no reason why the Church and Christians have to be poor, weak, confused, frustrated, defeated. The Lord has often given revival and reformation as people were moved to return to Him and His Word for it. He said to a “lukewarm,” poor church, “I counsel thee to buy of me gold . . . that thou mayest become rich” (Rev. 3:18). And His concerned Apostle wrote, I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of Cod abideth in you” (I John 2:14).

Some Suggested References on the Bible as Word of God

J. I. Packer, God Speaks to Man – Revelation and the Bible. Excellent. Fundamentalism and the Word of God.

Gerhard Maier, The End at the Historical Critical Method, a new little book, an excellent survey of the results of 200 years of Historical Criticism.

B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. One of the best. Calvin and Augustine, the essay on “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” is very helpful in showing Calvin’s view, and the essay in the Appendix on “John Calvin the Theologian” is also especially good on this subject.

Selectee Shorter Writings, Vol. II, Part V, pp. 537–636, beginning with an essay on “The Authority and Inspiration of the Scriptures” contains very valuable material taking up such subjects as “The Divine and Human in the Bible,” “The Westminster Doctrine . . .”, “the Autographs,” etc.

A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word, a biographical study of Luther’s view, interesting, wen-written and a bargain (hardcover, 90¢ at Eerdman’s plant bookstore!)

E. F. Klug, From Luther to Chemnitz – On Scripture and the Word, much material parallels and confirms Wood’s observations.

Kurt E. Marquart, Anatomy of an Explosion – Missouri in Lutheran Perspective, an excellent treatment of the Missouri Synod controversy over this matter, published by Concordia Theological Seminary Press, Ft. Wayne, IN, 1977, and available from them for $1.00—another unbeatable bargain.

C. Van Til, The New Synthesis Theology of the Netherlands, The New Hermeneutic, The Doctrine of Scripture. Helpful booklets in the evaluation of the critical views, especially as they are taking over Reformed churches.

Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible, an excellent survey of what is happening in traditionally evangelical churches and institutions as the Liberal, critical views move in.

E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth, excellent material, published in 1957.

A. D. R. Polman, The Word of God According to St. Augustine, especially helpful in demolishing the claim that our “modern” problems are only the results of new discoveries.

The Word of God and the Reformed Faith, especially the essays of Ockenga, L. Berkhof and Allis are helpful.

Stonehouse and Woolley, The Infallible Word, useful essays by the faculty of Westminster Seminary on the Bible’s infallibility. 1958.

S. Kistemaker, Interpreting God’s Word Today, essays by Van Groningen, Woudstra, Kistemaker, De Young, Arntzen, Praamsma, and Morton H. Smith on this subject.

D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Authority, includes an essay Oil “The Authority of the Scriptures.”

C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections. The essay on “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” makes the observation that if literary critics use their methods in analyzing the Bible as they do in analyzing his writings, his experience suggests that they will be 100% wrong (pp. 159–160).

John Murray, Calvin on Scripture and Divine Sovereignty. The first essay on “Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture” is reprinted in the Odober and November 1977 OUTLOOKS.

(The article by Ronald Nash on “Truth by Any Other Name” in the October 7, 1977 Christianity Today, may be especially helpful in dealing with the Barthian influence today.)

A lecture given in the Calvin College Lectureship Council’s Series at Calvin Seminary on November 10, 1977.