Within recent weeks we again commemorated the grace of God which operated providentially to produce some centuries ago the reformation of his church on earth.
Our attention centered itself among other things on the precious privilege of having been incorporated in that spiritual body. We appreciated anew the sentiments of that great man of God, John Calvin, when he addresses believers in his Institutes of the Christian Religion on the advantages of belonging to Christ’s church.
“But as our present design is to treat of the visible Church. we may learn even from the title of mother, how useful and even necessary it is for us to know her; since there is no other way of entrance into life, unless we are conceived by her, born of her, nourished at her breast, and continually preserved under her care and government till we are divested of this mortal flesh, and ‘become like the angels.’ For our infirmity will not admit of our dismission from her school; we must continue under her instruction and discipline to the end of our lives. It is also to be remarked, that out of her bosom there can be no hope of remission of sins, or of any salvation…” (Bk. IV, iv)
Thereupon he proceeds to instruct us in the method which our heavenly Father is pleased to employ for our education. Calling attention to the several offices which have been instituted for our spiritual welfare, he adds,
“We see the means expressed; the preaching of the heavenly doctrine is assigned to the pastors. We see that all are placed under the same regulation, in order that they may submit themselves with gentleness and docility of mind to be governed by the pastors who arc appointed for this purpose…. It is God who inspires us with faith, but it is through tho instrumentality of the gospel, according to tho declaration of Paul, ‘that faith cometh by hearing.’ So also the power to save resides in God, but, as the same apostle testifies in another place, he displays it in the preaching of the gospel. … This is attended with a twofold advantage. For on the one hand, it is a good proof of our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as if he were addressing us himself; and on the other hand, he has chosen for our infinity to address us through the medium of human interpreters, that he may sweetly allure us to him, rather than to drive us away by his thunders. . . ” Bk. IV, iv)
These lengthy quotations show how radically the Reformation broke with the traditions which had encrusted the Roman church throughout the medieval period. Again the emphasis was placed where Christ and the apostles had placed it—on the church as a spiritual mother and teacher of those who are called to eternal glory and not as the mediatrix and dispenser of grace. Thus the undermining of the sacramental structure upon which Rome had reared its imposing edifice was signalized. The clarion call of the reformers was to a spirituality evoked and nourished by the truths of the Holy Scriptures.
Now the pillars of the church are no longer to be conceived of as an impressive liturgy centered in the sacraments, an all-powerful hierarchy culminating in the pope of Rome as intermediaries between the people and God, an authoritative theology based more on the traditions of men than on the teachings of God. The church rather rests in and upon the Word of the living God. This has been admirably demonstrated by Dr. W. Hendriksen in his recent article in this series. But as a necessary corollary to the supremacy of the Word was the uncompromising insistence by the reformers on the place and purpose of the pulpit in the church. God is pleased to make use of the ministry of men, who make known his gospel of salvation and call us people to repentance and faith.
As we set ourselves to commemorate our centennial as Christian Reformed Church, we may not forget that we are spiritual heirs of the Reformation. Thus we should investigate what the pulpit means to us as individuals and church. Have we preserved intact this heritage of the centrality of the proclaimed Word in our divine worship? Do we understand the uniqueness of the Reformed pulpit as set forth by our confessional standards and liturgical writings? In view of the growing apostasy in both the United States and Canada we should ask whether we have possibly also weakened on the biblical teaching concerning the nature and function of the pulpit. Also here we must pledge ourselves to continual reformation, in order that in the way of faithfulness to the Word we may enjoy the assurance of God’s grace as we face our second hundred years of history. To these and similar questions we should address ourselves, in order that our centennial celebration may attain its high purpose and hold out the promise of holy fruition.
Is Our Pulpit Distinctive?
Within the past few years we have enjoyed the privilege of meeting several dozen members of the Christian Reformed Church who have come from the “outside.” These good folk reside in points as widespread as Canada and California, Michigan and Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma. Some had never held membership in Christ’s church before; others had united with us after long years of membership in other denominations.
Nearly all of them we asked why they had felt attracted to the Christian Reformed Church; what they considered to be possibly the most unique aspect of its life.
Invariably they insisted that the most distinctive feature of the Christian Reformed Church in their opinion was its pulpit.
Often they commented on the characteristic place which the sermon occupies in Our worship. Many expressed appreciation for the clarity with which the basic Christian doctrines were expounded from week to week. Some marveled at the sustained interest of our people in preaching. They were surprised that preaching could remain fresh from year to year. Many stated that never before had they realized how relevant the Word of God was for the daily life of modern man. But without exception they were convinced that the Christian Reformed Church as they knew it was unique because it preached “the Word, the whole Word and nothing but the Word.”
Such testimonies are refreshing and heartening, particularly to those who have been Christian Reformed all their lives. They attest to the undeniable fact that sound Scriptural preaching always attracts the hungering heart and challenges the enlightened mind. Our pulpits have been influential throughout the years, likely far more than we realize or some of us might even care to grant.
But besides refreshing us, these testimonies should spur us on.
This challenges every member of the church to examine anew what the pulpit means to him. We must understand the centrality of preaching for the life of the congregation. No doubt, we have taken this precious gift of God too much for granted and in large measure abused our privilege. Have we possibly become so accustomed to the pattern of Reformed worship, that we are no longer stimulated by it? Are there among us perhaps tendencies which point to a weakening of the scriptural grounding of every sermon? Do we realize what God commands the pulpit to be and to do? Are we as ministers and members seeking to preserve its true character and promote its effectiveness?
What the Reformed Pulpit Should Be
Our fathers in the gracious providence of God were led to establish the Christian Reformed Church. Their chief aim was to raise up in this new world a consistent and unconfused witness to the Reformed faith. This, they were convinced, gave them undeniable right in the eyes of God to separate existence.
They believed it was essential that a church should do more than subscribe to some Reformed confessional standards. The church was obligated to know those confessions, to be sincerely convinced of their scriptural character, to implement the subscription by a consistent preaching and practicing of the Reformed faith as the most complete and consistent expression of the living Word.
Thus when we examine the place and purpose of the pulpit in our churches, we must first find an answer to the question: How did our fathers conceive of this? This is clearly stated in our confessional standards, the liturgical formularies and the Church Order, all of which are still binding upon ministers and members in our denomination today.
Several Significant references to the preaching of the Word are found in the Belgic Confession. It insists on the sufficiency of the Scriptures as the only rule of faith and concludes that “it is unlawful for anyone, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures” (Art. VI). The true church is to be found there where “the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached” (Art. XXIX). For the spiritual polity of the church Christ has instituted and called “ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God…” and the reasons assigned for this are “that by these means the true religion may be preserved, and the true doctrine everywhere propagated” (Art. XXX). Even the magistrates are exhorted “to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word” (Art. XXXVI).
The Heidelberg Catechism also mentions and somewhat delineates the nature and purpose of preaching. Christ is said to gather his church by both his Spirit and Word (L.D. XXI, 54). Preaching is specifically mentioned as the means employed by the Holy Spirit to work faith in the hearts of the hearers (L.D. XXV, 65). Both the preaching and the sacraments “are designed to direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation” (L.D. XXV, (Jl). It is to be regarded as the first of the keys by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers (L.D. XXXI, 83). The manner and efficacy of such faithful preaching is elaborately set forth in the very next answer. Mention is even made of “strictly” preaching the ten commandments (L.D. XLIV, llS).
But of far greater importance for the subject at hand are the Canons of Dart. The fathers were convinced that even such a profound truth as divine election “is still to be published in due time and place in the Church of God, for which it was peculiarly designed, provided it be done with reverence, in the spirit of discretion and piety, for the glory of God’s most Holy Name, and for the enlivening and comforting of His people, without vainly attempting to investigate the secret ways of the Most High” (I, Art. 14). If we had no other statement than this from the Reformed fathers, we would still know with a large measure of clarity and completeness what they considered preaching to be.
Yet there are many other references to this subject. To whom the gospel must be brought is admirably stated. The “promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God in His good pleasure sends the gospel” (II, Art. 5). God brings man to a saving knowledge of himself and to true conversion “by the operation of the Holy Spirit, through the word or ministry of reconciliation” (III–IV, Art. 6). Thus all the hearers are “called” by the ministry of the Word which may never be equated with human speculations or sophisms. Indeed, the work of reconciliation is not “effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel” (III–IV, Art. 11). Yet these warnings did not cause the Reformed leaders to hesitate in assigning great significance to preaching. Rather, they urged upon the believers “the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and food for the soul…For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more clearly this favor God, working in us, usually manifests itself…” (III–IV, Art. 17).
The value of the proclaimed Word for our spiritual growth is extolled in these words, “And again by His Word and Spirit, He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforth more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (V, Art. 7). All this is beautifully summarized in words found near the conclusion of the Canons, “And as it has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments” (V, Art. 14).
The liturgical formularies, all of which date from this period of early Reformed history, merely reinforce this strong emphasis on the place and purpose of the pulpit. Repeatedly in the Collection of Christian Prayers God is asked so to bless the preaching of the Word that it may be effective to salvation and growth in grace. In the Forms for baptism and profession of faith believers are expected to express a wholehearted affirmation to “the doctrine which is contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian church, to be the true and complete doctrine of salvation.”
Much more elaborately is this dealt with in the Form for the Ordination of Ministers of God’s Word. Such ministers are the spiritual shepherds who must feed the church in the pasture which “is nothing else but the proclamation of the gospel.” They must “thoroughly and sincerely present to their people the Word of the Lord…and apply the same, as well in general as in particular, for the benefit of the hearers; instructing, admonishing, comforting, and approving, according to everyone’s need; proclaiming repentance toward God and reconciliation with Him through faith in Jesus Christ; and refuting with the Holy Scriptures all errors and heresies which conflict with this pure doctrine.” The congregation is urged to “remember that God Himself through him speaks unto you, and entreats you. Receive the Word, which he, according to the Scripture, shall preach unto you, not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God.”
To this might be added several phrases from the Church Order which speak in a similar vein. Preaching is mentioned as one of the duties of the minister (Art. 16). This must be employed “to ward off false doctrines and errors” (Art. 55) as well as to instruct the people in the doctrine of Scripture. Thus the requirement is laid down that the sum of doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism is to be briefly explained (Art. 68). Synodical decisions both by the churches in the Netherlands and here have merely sought to explicate and implement the principles contained in the Church Order. Already in 1882 synod felt constrained to insist that only ministers who are soundly Reformed may be permitted to preach in our pulpits. Likewise, only Reformed material may be used in reading services. Later the synod of 1924 further explained what is meant by being “soundly Reformed” in preaching. In all the discussions surrounding the question of a suitable Order of Divine Worship for the churches the sermon was given the most prominent place in harmony with the traditional Reformed position.
From these and many similar statements the place of the pulpit in our churches becomes crystal clear. The pulpit is set in bold relief as the foremost agency which it has pleased God to use for the salvation of men and the preservation of his church. The salient points of the biblical conception of preaching may be summarized thus. Preaching as the Christian Reformed Church understands and seeks to maintain it is:
(1) Authoritative. It comes in the name of God, who speaks to his people through the minister who is called by Christ. clothed with spiritual authority in the speaking, and assured of God’s continued help.
(2) Biblical. The whole counsel of God must be proclaimed. This is nothing less than the Holy Scriptures which are the infallible and all-sufficient rule for faith and life. Thus preaching must always be “textual” in the sense of expounding and applying some part of the Bible. And the heart of Biblical truth is God’s way of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
(3) Covenantal. This preaching in the church is directed primarily to bring to manifestation God’s covenant with his people, in order that they may know and love him and do his will. The church through her officers determines who alone may preach and judges according to the norm of the Scriptures whether the message is conformable to the Word. Thus all preaching aims both at the ingathering and edification of the church.
(4) Doctrinal. In order that these goals may be attained preaching must consist of the proclamation of the great truths revealed by God. It deals not with life-situations, biblical characters, or subjective experiences, except possibly in so far as these reveal the holy mysteries of God’s words and works. Even the more profound truths may not be neglected.
(5) Edifying. The believers are by these means to be strengthened in the faith which is according to godliness. No mere objective presentation of the Word is ever to be deemed sufficient. The Reformed churches have always insisted on application. Thus the Word is demonstrated as relevant to the historical situation in which church and believers and themselves. This calls for instruction and rebuke, correction and consolation.
(6) Fruitful. The Reformed churches have never doubted that such preaching, because of the inherent dignity with which it has been clothed by God, always enjoys the promise of effectiveness. The Spirit is pleased to employ it as the chief means for fulfilling the purposes of God. Thus the proclaimed Word never returns void to him, which is an encouragement to the faithful and a warning to the disobedient and indifferent.
(7) God-glorifying. The supreme aim of all preaching lies not in the salvation of sinners as such but in the praise of the Lord. This imposes serious responsibilities upon both preacher and people. By becoming sensitive, to this goal they will be prevented from catering to popular taste or seeking personal advantage. In Reformed preaching there is really no place for the novel and sensational.
Has Our Preaching Remained Reformed?
It now becomes our task to find an answer to the question whether our preaching in the Christian Reformed Church has largely remained true to its God-assigned task.
That such appraisal will be most difficult is evident. Only God has kept a record of all the sermons which have been preached during this century. He alone can adequately assess the spiritual value and fruitfulness of our homilectical efforts. Even the most meticulous research of the sermons would be insufficient to provide us with a final and binding judgment. A fairly conservative estimate of the number of sermons preached in the Christian Reformed Church would place the figure near three million.
Yet a few approaches immediately suggest themselves.
First of all, we have a large number of published sermons, some of which date back almost to the beginnings of our church. We may also investigate the theological training which most of our ministers have received and which has molded their sermonizing. We do well to consider what has been written about this subject repeatedly in our church publications. And finally, we should refer to synodical reports and decisions which reflect our views of preaching.
As we set out to explore the sermons which are published. we are at once conscious of the limitations of this method. Cheerfully we must admit this. Yet certain characteristics emerge as we read sermon after sermon. That there are differences becomes evident at once. It would seem that in the period before 1900, when the training of our ministers lacked somewhat in thoroughness of scholarship, the sermons were strongly flavored with an experiential approach. The application was often sharply distinguished from the exposition of the text. And frequently a well·de6ned covenantal approach to the congregation appears to be lacking. The hearers were classified according to certain spiritual levels: the unconverted, the indifferent, the seeking souls, the young people, the strong in faith and the weak, etc. From about 1900 to 1940 many of the sermons seem to be more thoroughly exegetical and doctrinal. Much of this undoubtedly is to be attributed to the increasing scholastic stature of our college and seminary training as well as to the remarkable influence which the revival of Reformed life and learning in the “Doleantie” movement in the Netherlands exerted upon our churches. The change after 1940 is rather less pronounced. The sermons still aim at expounding and applying the Word of God to the congregation. Yet the published messages are much briefer. It may also be questioned whether the call to personal repentance and faith is as pronounced as the Reformed creeds would require. The covenantal approach is very marked, sometimes even to the degree that the preacher seems to assume that all his hearers are “in a state of grace.” There seems to be little evidence, however, that the sermons tend to be topical rather than textual.
The second avenue of approach to the question is also illuminating. In distinction from most other denominations our theological training has been uniquely homogeneous.
Our ministers, and hence also the congregations, have been molded much more by their Netherlandish heritage than by the American ecclesiastical situation. During the first seventy years the Holland language was very largely dominant. On the shelves of our ministers the Dutch source books in theology likely outnumbered those written in English. And at Calvin Seminary, where about ninety percent of our preachers received their theological instruction, the department of practical theology was headed for more than fifty years by two professors whose views on sermonizing were wholly compatible and confessionally grounded. We refer to the work of the late Professor Wm. Heyns and the late Dr. Samuel Volbeda. Their contributions to the Christian Reformed pulpit have been described in a recent Banner article by the present incumbent of this chair, Professor Carl Kromminga. Repeatedly these professors warned against the type of preaching in vogue in many Christian denominations around us as superficial, topical, and often not grounded in the Scriptures. Their insistence on authoritative, exegetical, covenantal and experimental preaching has left its indelible stamp on our ecclesiastical life.
This conception of the pulpit is woven into the very fabric of our churches. That it controls the thinking of our people is evident from almost any issue of our church publications. We call attention to articles which have appeared in recent issues of The Banner. The editor on October 5, 1956, devoted no less than two pages to the subject “Preach the Word.” Here we read such statements as, “Such a call (to the ministry) must by all means have a vertical reference, in that it comes from God alone. Those who enter the ministry without this are usurpers who often become the most pitiable of all men. To come with credentials a minister must not only be called, but above all he must be sent.” And again, “And woe to us if we do not teach and preach it as the Word. Moreover, we are to teach and preach the whole Word, the whole counsel of God…We are to preach the Word and never to allow anything to supplant it in our pulpits.” And yet again, “Under God our survival since 1857 has been bound up with a pure preaching of the Word, which is one of the important marks of the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In much the same vein Professor L. Berkhof writes on “Practical Christianity” in his column Trends in Religious Thought, “In preceding articles I have called attention once and again to the fact that our preaching, to be truly effective, should be practical. It should not consist of a purely abstract presentation of doctrinal truths, but should be accompanied with dear and specific indications of the bearing of these on life as we know it today.” Professor R. B. Kuiper, past president of Calvin Seminary, echoes the same sentiments in his Commencement Address published in three installments in The Banner, challenging the graduates, “If any of you men is not convinced of that doctrine, I beg of you not to enter the ministry of the Christian Reformed Church, or, for that matter, of any other church.
If you are not prepared to preach salvation by grace, why preach at all? If, on the other hand, you are firmly convinced of the Reformed doctrine of salvation by the sovereign grace of God, then go out and proclaim it dearly, boldly, paSSionately. And may God forbid that you should ever add one drop of water to the strong wine of that Pauline—let me rather say Scriptural—teaching. It lies at the very heart of the Word of God. It is truth indeed.” A few weeks earlier the Rev. George Gritter emphasized much the same conception of preaching in his article “The Church of Tomorrow,” in which he pleaded for covenantal preaching, “No word of man may ever be substituted for the Word of God; but neither may the Word of God be preached in fragmentary fashion. The congregation needs a planned and balanced spiritual diet. The minister finds his starting point not in human situations but in the Word. The pulpit is not the place for the demonstration of human cleverness, but for the exaltation of divine grace…”
We might also turn to the many synodical directives given to our ministers, all of which assume the Reformed or biblical conception of the nature and function of the pulpit. It is recognized as the chief agency for the training of the people of God on all doctrinal and ethical matters. When decisions were reached with regard to missions, Christian education, the growth of worldliness, the problems of labor and capital, the rising tide of divorce in our lands, and the spread of “neo-malthusian” propaganda and practice, synod never hesitated in assigning to the pulpits the task of proclaiming authoritatively and uncompromisingly and faithfully the will of God in these matters for the Christian believers. And it may be safely stated that by and large the pulpits have remained true to this trust.
Criticisms of Christian Reformed Preaching
All this does not mean that the pulpit among us has been free from criticism.
Rather, it seems to be quite characteristic of our constituency to criticize the pulpit easily and frequently. In a sense this may even be appreciated. By means of it we receive some assurance that the church is a very vital part of the life of its membership. Dr. John Kromminga has pointed this out correctly in his luminous volume The Christian Reformed Church: a Study in Orthodoxy. He writes,
“The interest of the Christian Reformed people in the discussion of theological subjects was part of the heritage which they bad received from their background in the Netherlands…It is worthy of special note that this interest was shared in a very full measure by the laymen; not the lay-leaders only, but the rank and file of the membership of the church…. This interest in theological subjects and denominational affairs was of such importance as to be the dominant interest in many homes ….The attitude of the leaders in their preaching and writing was designed to encourage this interest….Almost all of the sermonic utterances were doctrinally based. even when they concerned matters of practice rather than of theory….The discussion of those doctrinal subjects was very painstaking and thorough, and at times abstract” (pp. 40–42).
Since doctrine was dished up in the sermons, it could be expected that the sermons would be discussed, a very commendable practice still found, we may believe, in many Christian Reformed homes. Much of the criticism undoubtedly was in a measure valid and should challenge the ministers to earnest soul-searching. Often we need the reminder that we “have our treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
As far as we know there has never been any adequate survey among our people of the influence of the pulpit on their lives. Some small attempts have been made in this direction at times, chiefly among college students and the young people of the congregations. But limited as these surveys were to a small fragment of our membership, their results have been both incomplete and inconclusive.
This does not mean, however, that we can afford to disregard the common criticisms which have been heard. Much less should they be loftily dismissed as the opinions of a few cranks and chronic complainers in the congregations. Rather, they should stimulate us to honest appraisal of our work in the hope that this may yield the rich and rewarding fruit of greater consecration to the calling wherewith we have been called.
We would therefore mention a few of the criticisms which have been leveled against the Christian Reformed Church throughout the years. The sermons have at times been accused of being “too intellectual,” appealing merely to the mind and failing to challenge the hearers on the deeper levels of life. At times it is maintained that they are “purely objective,” merely stating the cardinal truths of the Christian faith and failing to stress the experiential element of personal fellowship with God or the call to repentance and renewal of life.
Not a few insist that Reformed preaching is quite “archaic, antiquated, irrelevant” to the life of the believer in our complex modern culture. Ministers are accused of merely repeating the doctrinal cliches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Especially “catechism” preaching has been attacked on this score. Too much time and attention is given, so the objectors hold, to precise orthodox definitions. Preachers are guilty of failing to acquaint themselves with the struggles of their members in the daily round. They dwell too much in the isolated “ivory towers” of their studies and fail to see their people and walk with them on the road of life. Thus the sermons are isolated from the actualities of the world which threaten to overwhelm our people.
There are also those who maintain that our ministry is too preoccupied with the question of individual salvation and consequently has neglected the social implications of the gospel Thus it is charged that though we are Reformed in our teaching of salvation by sovereign grace, at the same time we fail as Calvinists who should proclaim that the Word of grace must be applied to all of life. Such unbalanced preaching, the critics claim, disregards such broader issues of our day as social justice, race relations, political developments, international good-will, etc., and forces the church into the backwash of our culture, into a dead-end alley where simple believers live out their lives in selfish contentment which looks forward to heaven but falls to demonstrate the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ in daily living.
Are Christian Reformed sermons by and large too pessimistic? So it seems to some of our most vocal critics. Preachers are accused of dwelling too much on the themes of sin, depravity and judgment, to the neglect of proclaiming the joyous gospel of full and free salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus our membership is apt to become morbidly preoccupied with personal sins and failings. Some have gone so far as to insist that the increase of nervous disorders among our people is due in no small measure to one-sidedness in our preaching. And surely it cannot be denied that we still have among us many professing Christians who apparently possess little true assurance of faith.
Here we can do little more than Signalize some of these criticisms. The limitations of space forbid a careful analysis of and reply to them. As long as Christ’s church is composed of so many people—all with their unique personalities, their distinct problems, their personal insights and experiences, frustrations and hopes, the criticisms will undoubtedly continue to come our way. And because every sermon reflects in some measure the character as well as the convictions of him who preaches, the danger of one-sidedness remains real. Never will there be in this world a perfect sermon, any more than we can hope to find either a perfect preacher or a perfect congregation. Thus instead of seeking to justify ourselves, Jet the ministers listen patiently and humbly and take to heart whatever criticism contains some modicum of truth, praying at the same time that the Holy Spirit may enable him the better to preach the full counsel of God effectively and fruitfully. In this sphere there is no room for boasting of our achievements; the “exceeding greatness” is of God and of him only.
The Contributions of the Pulpit
Despite all the strictures which may be made on Christian Reformed preaching, we believe that it has undeniably made large contributions to our ecclesiastical life. The church has become what it is mostly because of its pulpit. Indeed, closely related to and inextricably interwoven with our sermonizing are many other venerable Reformed practices which make our church unique in the United States and Canada. We refer to such current policies as maintaining catechetical classes for all baptized children and young people, establishing and supporting Christian schools, conducting family visitation annually in the congregations, making use of church visitation, and developing an effective Reformed press. But not one of these, we are convinced, could flourish apart from an influential and effective pulpit.
How, then, can we describe the Christian Reformed Church in its centennial year? What kind of church has it become largely through its ministry of the sacred Word?
(1) Without fear of contradiction we would affirm that it is by and large homogeneous, like-minded. Although yet relatively small, the church has had to take seriously disintegrating forces which have operated almost from the beginning. The church is widely scattered in two huge countries, the United States and Canada, both of which have never been entirely free from a measure of regionalism and provincialism. In addition, our membership has been recruited from among people of widely different backgrounds. By no means all of our members have been nurtured from infancy in the Reformed tradition. Yet the churches manifest a degree of doctrinal and ethical uniformity which is vastly different than the vague unity characterizing many another denomination. This phenomenon is nothing short of amazing, and cannot be explained simply as the fruit of a common inheritance from the Netherlands. We then would have to overlook conveniently the fact that many of our members are third generation Americans while others are recent immigrants and that not merely some hundreds but literally thousands of them have their roots in other denominations. The measure of true spiritual unity to which we have attained, we believe, cannot be explained apart from the tremendous impact which our pulpits have made by the grace of God.
(2) The pulpit has also enabled the church to become self-consciously Calvinistic and Reformed. That there is still room for much improvement we dare not deny. We are wrestling with the ever-present tension between denominational distinctiveness and true Christian ecumenicity. We refuse to set ourselves up in imitation of the fringe-sects as “the only true church.” True Calvinism is never narrow, isolated, self-righteous in its claims. Yet we glory in our Reformed heritage. We openly defend the thesis that Calvinism is Christianity at its purest and richest and best. These convictions have given us a rather strong sense of denominational solidarity and distinctiveness. With God’s help we have been enabled to maintain an uncompromising loyalty to the Word of God and the historic Christian faith, even to the point of severing our relations with the Federal Council of Churches in 1924 and again with the National Association of Evangelicals in 1951.
(3) Our membership has been stimulated by the pulpit to Christian activity. Mention need only be made of what has been achieved in the fields of missions, evangelism, education, philanthropy and labor. Through the years there seems to be a growing sense of Christian stewardship of time and talents and treasure. Because of the limitations of finance and opportunity among us, not a few of our young people have served other denominations in the capacity of ministers and missionaries, while still looking with fondness and respect to the Christian Reformed Church as their spiritual mother.
(4) In this sense the pulpit has helped to arouse our people to the challenge of witnessing. From the earliest years our ministers have not failed to remind their congregations that our churches were placed in this part of the world in God’s providence to be a blessing to those around them. Little could be done in an effective way as long as the Holland language remained the medium of expression in the churches. Yet the sense of calling was never blunted. And today our laymen in many walks of life demonstrate effectively that they are not ashamed of the gospel of Christ which to them is the power of God unto salvation. Apart from the personal witnessing which is found, we may refer to the energetic programs of city and rural evangelism which flourish in many sections of our denomination.
(5) But our pulpit has also produced a chastened church. Our ministers have not failed to remind us of our imperfections, our weaknesses, our glaring sins, Proof for this abounds in our denominational weeklies as well as in our synodical reports and decisions, The preaching of the Word has helped prevent a fatal infection of religious pride and self-righteousness, We realize keenly the mistakes which we make as individuals and as congregations; usually we take these mistakes seriously enough to confess them publicly and seek divine pardon.
That we still take our pulpit seriously and seek to guard its purity zealously is evident from recent incidents in our ecclesiastical history. When a student sermon provoked unfavorable reaction from one of our consistories in 1952, the case was seriously considered by the synod, And again when a certain classis objected to statements made by one of our ministers in a radio address, its protest to synod was vigorously debated. Despite the fact that the protestants were not sustained by synod, the presence of these two cases demonstrates that the church at large, takes the pulpit very seriously.
As we prepare to commemorate the Lord’s mercies upon us during the first one hundred years of our ecclesiastical history, we are challenged in several directions to remember and re-evaluate the place and purpose of the pulpit in the Christian Reformed Church.
This is a time for remembrance.
God has provided us in his everlasting grace with the biblical view of the ministry of the sacred Word. This has been preserved among us, in spite of many attacks and subversions, by faithful leaders and laymen. Yet each new generation must learn these scriptural truths concerning preaching anew and make them a vibrant part of its spiritual life. Do we as members and ministers still believe them sincerely as they are so uncompromisingly presented in our creeds and liturgy? Do we as parents remind our children of the glory of hearing the Word of God in our churches? Do we pray that the Word may become increasingly effective in our lives by the grace of the Holy Spirit? Do we witness to our neighbors to the blessings which we so abundantly receive through the ministry of the Word and encourage them to go with us to the house of the Lord?
This is a time for re-evaluation.
None of us can assess the effectiveness of the preaching for others; much less for the church at large. Rather every preacher and every elder and every member is challenged by God’s own Word to “prove the spirits, whether they are of God.” The first step toward deformation will ineVitably be that of taking the pulpit for granted. As preachers we are commanded to bring forth out of the treasuries of the divine Word things both new and old for the edification and instruction and admonition of those entrusted to our care. Thus we are challenged to study, to meditate upon, to pray for grace that the Word of God may have its free course. But our people do well to remember that their ministers are called upon first to preach the grace of God. Recent articles in the Missionary Monthly and in Readers’ Digest serve warning that our preachers also are overworked. We expect of them too much administrative work, too much social calling, too much attendance upon meetings possibly profitable in themselves but hardly conducive to enable them to develop as effective ministers of the sacred Word. Also our congregations must learn to put first things first. If we fail here, we must expect to reap the tragic harvest of superficial, vague and flabby preaching. And the fault will be that of our parishioners fully as much as of our preachers.
This is also a time for re-dedication.
God has done great things for us, whereof we are glad. But the grace which he has bestowed upon us required humble and diligent devotion and obedience to his revealed will. A faithful pulpit has been the channel of blessing which he has been pleased to employ to make our church what it is today. Let us then purpose to keep the pulpit central in our worship and our work. The proclamation of the divine Word is the primary, the sole duty of the believing church in the world. All other labors are subsidiary to and dependent upon this. They serve merely to implement the preaching by applying its glorious truths to the variegated areas of human experience and aspiration.
Such a spiritual appraisal of past blessings and present challenges will enable us to commemorate our centennial with fear and reverence. We will glorify him who has been the source of all the favors we have experienced, applying the words of the national hymn to our ecclesiastical history and hopes:
“Thy love divine has led us in the past; In this free land by Thee our lot is cast; Be Thou our Ruler! Guardian, Guide and Stay; Thy Word our law; Thy paths our chosen way.”
Knowing what we have become by grace and understanding our calling to a world that lies in the chains of darkness and to many a church around us that has lost the luster of the true pulpit and therefore the experience of divine favor, we will confess:
“How blessed. Lord, are they who know the joyful sound. Who, when they bear Thy voice, in happiness abound! With steadfast step they walk. their countenances beaming. With brightness of the light that from Thy face is streaming. Exalted by Thy might from depths of desolation, They praise forever Thy Name, Thy justice and salvation.”
This and this alone gives hope to a church, pressed on every side by secularism and sin, by unbelief and heresy. As a church we need not fear the future; this is in the Lord’s hands. And we may be assured of his abiding favor over us as long as we preach and practice humbly but believingly what we so often sing, thou art, O God. our boast, the glory of our power; Thy sovereign grace is e’er our fortress and our tower. We lift our heads aloft, for God, our shield, is o’er us; Through Him, through Him alone, whose presence goes before us. We’II wear the victor’s crown…!”