Reformation Yesterday and Today

I am writing this article on what is for our family a very significant day of transition. Some months ago, after I had accepted a call to become the minister of the Seventh Reformed Church, my wife and I carne to Grand Rapids to begin a new phase in our We together. Our first several months we spent in a comfortable finished apartment in downtown Grand Rapids. This morning we met the vans at the front door of the manse the church has purchased for us and undertook the formidable task of unpacking boxes, arranging furniture, hanging pictures and mirrors, and generally settling into our new home.

Perhaps as a result of our removal from one part of the country to another and from one congregation to another, and also as a consequence of preparing and preaching a series of sermons on Hebrews 11, I have come to a fresh realization of the truth that we are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” that with Abraham and all believers we look “for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:13,10).

That conviction is very much on my mind as I write. My objective is to offer some reflections appropriate to the observance of Reformation Day and to suggest ways in which our celebration of the event this year can be fruitful and productive.

I ask the reader to consider these observations.


First, though we are grateful to God for our Reformed and Reformation heritage and would exchange it for nothing in this wide world, at the same time it is hard to escape the conclusion there is something very much wrong in the churches at the present time. Sadly, many who profess faith appear to have lost their way. It is almost as though a large number of individual members, congregations, and even denominations were wandering about in the mists, having little or no as to where they came from, who they are or what direction they ought to be taking. If we begin to think about the Reformation by taking a careful, honest look at the condition of the church we quickly discover that there is reason to be dismayed.

Second, a large number of denominational leaders and I refer not only to administrators but also to lay people, elders, ministers, educators and theologians—seem to be living under the spell of the spirit of the age. It is no doubt true that believers in general people of Reformed faith among them—face grave challenges in this last decade of the twentieth century. At the same time, we make a great mistake if we suppose that ours is the only generation in history to have been confronted with problems and difficulties. Others before us have been tempted by a spirit of unbelief too, and have often capitulated to it. I think for example, of Abraham Kuyper and of the background in liberal “Christianity” out of which he emerged.



J. C. Ryle had this to say about the condition of the church in England in the early eighteenth century: The Church of England existed in those days, with her admirable articles, her time-honored liturgy, her parochial system, her Sunday services, and her ten thousand clergy. The Nonconformist body existed, with its hardly won liberty and its free pulpit. But one account unhappily may be given of both parties. They existed, but they could hardly be said to have lived. They did nothing; they were sound asleep…The prince of this world made good use of his opportunity.His agents were active and zealous in promulgating every kind of strange and blasphemous opinion. Collins and Tindal denounced Christianity as priestcraft. Whiston pronounced the miracles of theBible to be grand impositions. Woolston declared them to be allegories. Arianism and Socinianism were openly taught by Clark and Priestly, and became fashionable among the intellectual part of the community. Of the utter incapacity of the pulpit to stem the progress of all this flood of evil, one Single fact will give us some idea. The celebrated lawyer, Blackstone, had the curiosity, early in the reign of George III, to go from church to church and hear every clergyman of note in London. He says that he did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero, and that it would have been impossible for him to discover,from what he heard, whether the preacher were a follower of Confucius, of Mahomet, or of Christ!

I quote so extensively from Ryle because his remarks illustrate my point most effectively. The age he describes was too sophisticated for the gospel. Learned, cultivated, discerning people turned instead to notions and ideas which were more acceptable to the time in which they lived. Then upon that dismal day the Lord in His mercy sent revival, using as His instruments human preachers—George Whitefield, John Wesley and a mighty company of others—and demonstrating that only in the pure Word of God is there power and hope.

Departure from the historic Christian faith is almost invariably motivated by and accompanied with the assertion that the old answers no longer apply, that the ancient verities which have comforted and refreshed so many along the way must now be set aside for the sake of relevance. ] doubt it can be demonstrated that any departure from or radical reinterpretation of the Christian faith has ever been found attractive or effective by any group other than a self-appointed and self-designated elite and those habituated to following them. One cannot carry out the mission on which God has sent us by jettisoning the truth.

Ignorance of history bears baleful fruit. Lack of self-knowledge, of a critical self-knowledge, will prove disastrous in the long run. If we think the issues we face are so grave that the doctrines of the Word of God—truths which have again and again come to the fore after a period of darkness and spiritual decay—are irrelevant and inapplicable for the age in which we live and that new solutions—meaning new interpretations of Scripture, new doctrines hitherto unknown, unsuspected, and unheard of—are called for, we shall soon find ourselves in very grave difficulty.

Third, I believe it is more than time we recognized that denominationalism in its historic form is mortally ill. I am almost inclined to say that it is dead, but that sort of conclusion could very well be precipitate and premature. The truth is that, whatever their pretensions to the contrary, no denomination or cluster of denominations has ever been the church. Denominations have done much good in the past. In the mercy of God, if old structures should be revived or if new and vital ones come to take their place, denominations—or something very like them—may well do good. in the future. In today’s world however, denominations and denominational structures are not only malfunctioning seriously; they are in many cases working against the very purposes for which they came to be in the first place.

In the nature of the case a denomination binds together people with similar convictions and viewpoints. In the state churches of Europe it has been possible, at least in some instances, for people with strongly divergent positions to live together in a reasonable degree of mutual forbearance. We do not think in such terms. On that account there is so frequently either an overt or a behind-the-scenes battle for the control of ecclesiastical structures and institutions.

The difficulty for many of us is just that participation in the life of a denomination implies a quite comprehensive concurrence in what that denomination stands for, in what it represents, in what it does. Membership surely assumes sufficient agreement and commitment to warrant involvement in that denomination’s ministry, its witness to the world, its various programs and undertakings. But what if the denominational leadership—the group that has been successful in winning control—determines to go in one direction and a considerable proportion of the membership is in conscience unable to follow? Must those who disagree who disagree, moreover, on what they firmly believe to be biblical grounds–continue to support and applaud in violation of their convictions? One remembers here the brave and defiant words of Martin Luther addressed to the Emperor Charles V and to the Diet of Worms in 1521.

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

My experience over many years and within several different denominational frameworks has invariably been that when things begin to go wrong and people either withhold support from their denomination or actually begin to contemplate withdrawal from the fellowship of that denomination, ecclesiastical officials and those with an interest in the structure undertake an assault on the dissidents. That assault may be harsh. It may also be subtle and indirect. But people who dare to differ will pay a price, if conformists have anything to say about it. It does not appear to occur to these ecclesiastics that they may be mistaken, that denominational repentance may be called for, that the objections registered may rest on secure foundations. Apparently the recognition that a grave illness has been accurately diagnosed is more than can be handled.

The truth is, of course, that any denomination which, in its decay, points the finger of blame at the watchman who cries out in warning because of approaching danger and actually begins to persecute or prosecute dissent is already exhibiting its sickness and advertising to lookers on that it is beginning to collapse upon itself.


The patient reader has by this time no doubt begun to ask what all this may have to do with the observance of Reformation Day. I answer as follows.

1. As in the past, so now also the congregation is of greater and more vital importance to believers than the denomination. I am very far from taking Congregationalist ground here. I do defend the thesis that in a corrupt and spiritually darkened situation faithful men and women must think about the character and commitments of the congregation to which they belong, or to which they may be considering attaching themselves, rather than its denominational umbrella.

2. We should take very great care not to deal lightly or frivolously with the whole matter of Christian fellowship, the communion of the saints. Church—that is to say, denominational—fellowship ought only to be severed for cogent reasons and under intolerable conditions. What frequently happens is that, because of denominational controversy and the resultant discouragement with the connectional links binding congregations together, pious people take refuge in independency and come to despise connectionalism. Some are so strongly convinced of the rectitude of their cause as even to make ill-advised, hasty and extreme statements in expressing their newly discovered anti-connectional sentiments. The problem, however, is not the interdependence of congregations in ecclesiastical fellowship but the impertinence of denominations and churchmen who allow themselves to be seduced into the supposition that their organization, whether large or small, is in some ultimate sense the church. Such folk confuse their own cause with the cause of God Himself, and they are very wrong. As I see it, among the dangers facing us is just the temptation to rush into congregational autonomy and independence. To yield to that impulse would be to make a grave mistake. In an evil and hostile world believers need each other more than ever. They are meant to be together always, of course. But especially in a time of ecclesiastical disintegration ought like-minded people to hold fast to each other: for mutual support, encouragement, ministry and correction. It is utterly essential that we keep lines of communication open across various kinds of boundaries and that we reach out to and support one another.

3. I believe it is utterly imperative that we work together for the reformation of the church. The inclination will be to forsake the body that has lost its first love and become what seems to us to be a caricature of itself, and instead of continuing in that structure to find a comer where we can live and worship and witness in accordance with our convictions, unhindered by old adversaries. If we are truly the heirs of the great Reformation, however, we shall have uneasy consciences about such a solution to our difficulties. Whether we continue the battle from within or from the outside, that struggle must be waged. Arguments can be adduced to support both points of view. Neither position is necessarily to be despised. I discovered. long ago that what may be the calling from God for one person is by no means necessarily his calling for another. My extreme impatience is reserved for those who content themselves with the present sorry state of affairs and feel no obligation to do something about it, to resist, to utter a resounding NO. Resistance to doctrinal error and decay is right. Concurrence in it is completely wrong.

4. I suggest also that very much at the forefront of our interest must be a united crying out to God for revival in the church, for a movement of the Holy Spirit which will convict of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come,and which will strike down both the pretensions and arrogance of people in the church who without compunction violate the apostolic faith and the pride of those whose comfort is in tradition and unblemished orthodoxy. Our prayer to God must be: “O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).

5. In a time of ecclesiastical controversy and widespread dissent, we who are on the side of historic biblical and Reformed orthodoxy must take care not to sin against the Lord by forgetting to deal with others in love. We are duty-bound to be plainspoken, frank and faithful. But we should remember also that others who occupy different ground may do so sincerely, and that even as we administer the faithful wounds of a friend (Proverbs 27:6) we must be gracious, kind and generous in spirit. I have known some whose righteous impatience knew no bounds and who smote to the ground any with whom they happened to disagree. That cannot be right. We remember the example of our LordJesusChrist “who, when he was reviled, reviled. not again” (1 Peter 2:23).


The quotation on the eighteenth century English situation is from J. C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), pp. 14,15. The work was first published in 1885. The quotation from Martin Luther may be found in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950), p. 185.

Dr. John Richard de Witt was born in Zeeland, Michigan. A son of the manse, he attended schools ill New Era, Detroit, Grand Rapids (Baxter Christian School and Grand Rapids Christian High SchooI), and Chicago (Chicago Christian High School).

He is a graduate of Hope College (B.A.) and Western Theological Seminary (B.D.), both in Holland, Michigan, and of the John Calvin Academy of the Theological University of the Reformed Churches in Kampen, the Netherlands (Th. D). He also has an honorary degree (D.D.) from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

He has been minister of the Sixth Reformed Church of Paterson, NJ, assistant minister of Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London, minister of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church of Kingstree, SC, professor of church history and then of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS, and senior minister of the Second Presbyterian Church of Memphis, TN.

Dr. de Witt is a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust and an associate editor of The Banner of Truth.

Mrs. de Witt is the former Jane Conyers Epps of Kingstree, Sc. The de Witts have three children.