This article is an edited transcription of an address give during the annual meeting of the Reformed Fellowship on October 6, 1994, in the Beverly Christian Reformed Church (Independent).
I divide what I want to say to you now into two parts. The first I call a diagnosis, an analysis. The second is a proposed prescription. I am to speak on the great topic, “Toward a New Reformation.”
First, then, the analysis. Much of what I have to say will not be new to you, but I believe these things to be worth rehearsing and considering again.
First, we are a people both hurt and angry. I do not say that lightly. Precisely because our past is so important to us and because we set such great store by what God in His mercy has made us through the inestimable gift of our spiritual and theological heritage are we so hurt and angry. We remember the prophet Elijah who, after his mighty triumph over the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, at the sign of a threat from Queen Jezebel fled into the desert exhausted and discouraged.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.”
And he came thither unto a cave and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him and he said unto him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” And he said “I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (I Kings 19:4,9,10).
As I reflected on what I felt I should say to you today, I realized with fresh power that while some among us have m a degree suffered for righteousness’ sake, it is precisely because we live in a constitutional republic, a land like the United States of America, that people in high positions of ecclesiastical power have not persecuted us as our fathers were in the past. It has not been for want of will to persecute or to harass that we have been left unmolested but because we are protected by the civil power.
We think gratefully of the churches we have known, the preaching we have heard, the communities built up by the solid work of those who have gone before in the name of Christ of children taught the doctrines of the Word of God, of young people who have made profession of faith in the Reformed churches. When we consider the present ruinous condition of so many congregations and of the church we have loved, we are angry, wounded, embittered.
Second, we are a people in deep mourning. You recall the words of the Psalmist.
I will say unto God my rock, “Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, ‘Where is thy God?’” (Psalm 42:9,10).
I am well acquainted with people who will never cease to grieve. So much has been destroyed, they have been so severely savaged by disillusionment, have been robbed so extensively of what they regarded as great and good, have so much undergone what has seemed to them a death in their immediate family, that they will never cease to mourn as long as they live.
We have reason to be grieved in this way.
O Lord, regard the prayer of those Who love the walls of Zion well. Whose hearts are heavy for her woes,
Who sad amid her ruins dwell. Just as in Psalm 102 the psalmist laments the devastation of Zion so do we also grieve at the spectacle of a devastated church.
Third, we are a people subject to terrible pressures. Many of us are ministers, others elders and deacons. In our time the condition of the church is not good. There are clear signs that much is wrong among us. No longer can we depend upon the disciplined response of those reared in Christian families to attend public worship and to support the cause of God in the earth. At the same time ministers in particular, but other church leaders as well, are expected to succeed. Then we have to cope as well with the widespread craving among professing Christians for acceptance, for integration into the prevailing culture and society. People want to be accepted. They wish to be like others, as successful as they.
It is not surprising that we have seen in recent times the rise of the church growth movement. I have no desire to engage now in a critical assessment of church growth thought, but I want rather to underscore the reality itself. In this movement one finds what I believe to be a response to the desperate desire for effectiveness, for success. Every minister has known this massive temptation. It is intolerable to think of decline of a diminishing of numbers and interest in relation to what we knew in the past. People’s standards have changed. They are accustomed to skilled and expert communication. They have been habituated to music and entertainment of a kind unknown only a relatively short time ago. They are used now to the theatrical and immediately impressive. They have accepted the reality of manipulation by the media.
It is no easy task to undertake leadership in the church. We need to face that. We must recognize that large numbers of ministers are weary and discouraged. Many are wondering where they can turn next for a stimulative device to capture people’s minds and hearts. They are looking for a method of drawing people back to church.
Fourth, we are people, too, who are called to repentance. I say that carefully and deliberately. I speak now not to denominational hierarchs, to seminary professors who may have deflected the faithful of young people preparing for Christian service or the ministry, to ministers and church leaders who have gone astray. I speak rather to myself and to you. We have been guilty of idolatry. We have been guilty of sinning against the first and the second commandments. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them…(Exodus 20:3–6).
I tell you that we are obliged to repent because we have far too often failed to distinguish between God and His church on the one hand, and denomination on the other. For us “denomination” has been a kind of idol. The denominations of which we have been, or are, part, have been in each case a form of the visible church, that form with which we have had to do. We have worked for that denomination, we have sacrificed for it, we have given to it, and we have prayed for it, have been anxious about it, and in the end we have found ourselves disillusioned by it. The institution of the church can be an idol. It has been an idol for many of us. It is still that for many others. Primary loyalty to the church as institution is a wicked thing, a sin against God. I do not speak now of the holy church of our Lord Jesus Christ, but of the various organizational forms in which it has come to expression.
“Denomination” has all too frequently been everything to us. We have been loyal to an institution, to an organization. We have tended to vest our hope for the future of God’s work in the world in a denomination, whether the Reformed Church in America, or the Christian Reformed Church, or some other connectional organization. We have thought in terms of our identity as members of and ministers in a particular human institution. We have been proud of our allegiance to a name, and have rejoiced in our particular ecclesiological nomenclature. We have sinned against God because we have worshiped a denomination and have forgotten to distinguish God Himself and His holy church from what in the end is only a structure, a structure empty of significance because it has ceased to be what it once was.
Fifth, we are a people with a common memory and a noble history. To be sure, we represent different denominations. I am in the Reformed Church in America, Many of you are in the Christian Reformed Church, in another Reformed denomination, or in one of the Independent Reformed Churches. No matter. Our background, our past, our common memory is the same. We are Reformed Christians, and we are part of that mighty current which emerged out of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. At the head of that movement stood John Calvin himself, but next to him were the towering figures of John Knox, Theodore Beza and many others. We are conscious of roots. In some cases these are lineal and genealogical. In others, we have adopted them and received them as our own, as a gracious gift from God. We are keenly aware of where we have been and from where we have come, in the spiritual sense of the word. We ought to celebrate more than we do this great common memory and this noble history, a history without equal in the experience of the Christian church.
Sixth, we are a people with a mighty mission. It is not without hesitation that I make this statement. We are a small company here, and many of us are no longer young. I have myself been a minister for a very long time, and my past in the ministry must in the nature of the case be far more extensive than my future. But I make bold to say to you that we have a mighty task before us as a people.
Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the Icing’s house, more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knowest whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:13,14).
God has given us a vision.He has gifted us with a love for the truth. He has instilled within us a determination to work for reformation and to pray for it. The past cannot be the greater part of the history of the Christian church. Surely in the providence of God the best is yet to be. Our future is bright because God is great and because His Word does not change.
We turn then to what I have called a prescription. Our inclination may be to wring our hands and to lament the ruin we see all around us. The great question is, however: What is a relatively small company of people like the Reformed Fellowship to do? What are we called upon to do? What steps can we take to cleanse the temple of the church? Where ought we to go?
The first step is obvious enough. We must have at the core and center of everything we do the infallible Word of the living God. An ancient watchword is Sola et Tota Scriptura: the Scriptures alone and the Scriptures entire. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was based upon the Word of God. William Childs Robinson, a great Southern Presbyterian scholar, once wrote a book with the very striking title: The Reformation: A Rediscovery of Grace. It was precisely that. After a long period of darkness, at first somewhat gradually and then in a sudden burst of Holy Spirit given illumination, the minds and hearts of men and women were filled with a new understanding of the nature of the gospel. It is the gospel of God’s grace to us in ow Lord Jesus Christ.
What does it mean to be saved? Does it mean to belong to the Roman Catholic Church? Does it mean to follow carefully and judiciously the sacramental system? Does it mean to make one’s confession and to do penance? Does it mean to be an obedient son or daughter of holy church? No! To stand before God, to be a believer in Jesus Christ, to know the grace and power and beauty and glory of Christian faith and Christian life it is only necessary to understand and to receive the inestimable gift of God’s grace in the finished work of Jesus Christ—His passion, death, resurrection and ascension. The Reformation was based on the Scriptures, the Word of God. The Scriptures cannot be broken. Any reformation which is to take place in our time, or in the future, must likewise rest upon the solid base of the Word of God. We cannot compromise, and we cannot yield on that point. God’s Word is holy. It is His Word. It cannot fail. It is infallible. It cannot be broken. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. It is without error in all it teaches. It is God’s Word, and we must hear and obey.
Second, I want to say to you that we must make a very clear commitment to serious and solemn prayer for the movement of the Holy Spirit once again within the church. The Reformation was just that: it was a reforming of the church in accordance with the Scripture principle. But it was also a revival. Unless the Holy Spirit had been in it, the Reformation itself could never have happened. I want to commend to you a new book. It was written by lain H. Murray, and bears the title: Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750–1858. This wonderful volume will whet your appetite for the subject of revival.
I do not suggest now that we can take refuge from personal responsibility and the need for hard work in waiting on the Holy Spirit, simply living passively in the expectation that one day when the time is right God will once again supervene and re-order the affairs and life of the church. No indeed! I shall say more about our duty presently. The truth is, however, that we do not pray with sufficient earnestness and solemnity; we do not call upon God as we ought to do, asking Him without ceasing to have mercy upon His church and to move among us revivingly. How are the powers to be cast down from their high places? How is the church to be cleansed and purified? How is the kind of cleansing which Jesus wrought so powerfully in the temple just before His passion and death to take place in the church of the present time? Ultimately that can only happen when the Holy Spirit comes down, and God powerfully moves, breaking hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh.
Third, we must make a covenant with God and with one another to move forward together. Among us now several constituencies are represented. We are not together. We are apart. Many of us are not unaware of the historical reasons for our separation. Those reasons are no longer nearly so significant as once they were, now that the enemy looms so large on our horizon. The truth is that those historic differences have begun to melt away. But they still exist. Some of us are in the old denominations still, and some are presently outside them.
The tendency is for you to point the finger of accusation and blame at me, and for me to do the same to you. “I have had the courage,” some may say, “to resist even at great cost to myself and the congregation of which I am part. We have separated ourselves from what is unfaithful and dishonoring to God, while you remain compromised, having to accommodate yourself day by day, swallowing harder than you ever thought you would have to do just to be able to remain in place and to get along.”
At the same time, those on the side of the street on which I find myself at present are thinking about others who have left. We may be saying, “What a different position it would have been for us all if you had not abandoned us, if you had not gone off in secession, if you had not forsaken your brothers and sisters who are still carrying on the fight inside the old denominations!”
I have myself been on both sides in that struggle, and I know the thinking, feelings, emotions of good men and women who disagree in these respects. We have to remember that we are together in the work of God, attempting as best we can in good conscience to stand firm and to defend the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. We must not hold each other in such contempt. We dare not allow ourselves to be so suspicious of one another as we often are. Instead, we must make a determination, whether on the inside still at this stage or now on the outside, to covenant with God and among ourselves to move forward together. We do not have time or leisure for partisan peculiarities, for indulging in old hostilities. The need is too great. The opposition is too powerful. The ruin in the church of God is too overwhelming.
Fourth, we must refrain from imposing on others the details of our own agenda. Most of us have not had much experience in exercising ecclesiastical leadership. We do not know what it is to chair a synodical committee, or to serve as president of a classis, or moderator of a general synod. We have all our lives been in the minority, thrust aside, marginalized by the powers that be. Now, all at once, some of us have been given opportunities for leadership. We are not entirely certain how we ought to handle that. If one is a careful reader of the conservative, and especially the conservative Reformed press, one cannot help being a ware that ideas are being thrust forward as the very essence of what it means to be Reformed. Some of these ideas and convictions are worthy in themselves. The problem is that they are held up as central, and that must not be allowed to happen.
I think, for example, of the whole matter of Biblical ethics, and especially of what has come to be called theonomy in relation to ethics. It is true, of course, that all Reformed Christians are theonomists: that is to say, we hold the law of God to be normative for the Christian life. But across our history we have not understood theonomy in the sense now widely given it. I concur with those who hold that a great deal is to be learned from the case law of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. But it is a partisan eccentricity to allow it to become all comprehending.
In this very meeting two different versions of the Bible have been read. I am myself in the habit of using the Authorized, or King James Version. Others perhaps make a practice of employing some other version. When I attended the Baxter Street Christian School as a boy, we always knew the difference between those who attended the Reformed Church and those who belonged to the Christian Reformed Church. The Christian Reformed people used the American Standard Version of 1901, while we used the King James Version. I am not suggesting that textual questions or questions of translation are minor ones. I am saying to you with all seriousness that we must nor allow such issues to assume a larger place in our thinking than they may rightfully occupy.
The whole matter of home schooling is tremendously popular at the present time. Many families in the congregation I serve teach their children at home. Such is undoubtedly the case in your congregations too. That is their right and their privilege. One can adduce arguments for and against home schooling. I myself have seen children taught at home very effectively indeed. The point is that we cannot permit ourselves to believe that the faithful, orthodox, Biblically responsible method is that of home schooling, and that parents who send their children to schools—to Christian schools—are guilty of sin.
In my life I have observed fascinating phenomena. As I mention some of them I hope I am not treading too painfully on the toes of some who are listening. I do mean, however, to tread on them at least a little. In the south it is often said of a preacher who is particularly painstaking in his application of the truth, that he has “left off preaching and gone to meddling.” In my view a man has not really preached at all unless he has done some meddling.
I realize, certainly, that terrible injustices can be perpetrated by ecclesiastical courts. I have no quarrel with a discussion of those injustices and with efforts to put them right. But we do have to get beyond those events. We may remember them with sorrow. We can lament the grief and pain which occurred then. But we cannot let the whole matter of our working together now in the urgent and desperate situation in which we find ourselves to be conditioned on negotiations about those issues. Our eye must be kept clear. And our eye must be fixed constantly on the Word of God and on the Lord of that Word.
Fifth, I believe very strongly that as a people we have to make a determined effort to cleave only, to cleave with heart and soul, to the historic Reformed faith. I have been away from Western Michigan for a long time. I knew the Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed Church as a boy and a young man at Hope College and at Western Theological Seminary. While I was a student, I suppose I worshiped with a Christian Reformed congregation as often as I did with a congregation of my own connection. Members of my family have been active leaders in the Christian Reformed Church. Now that I am here again I often find myself stunned and dismayed at what I see and hear.
How does one define the Reformed faith? When I say that we are to cleave to the faith of our fathers, the historic Reformed faith, what do I mean? It is easy enough to say that the Reformed faith is embodied in our confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and others of equal authority. I discovered long ago, however, that it is possible to understand and appreciate and in one’s own mind to be committed to these documents as they lie on the table, and yet not be authentically Reformed.
When I speak of the historic Reformed faith, I have in view as well the whole matter of ethos. I am talking about what a Reformed congregation is like, the air it breathes, the piety it displays, its spirituality, the way in which it worships and conducts its life. I am speaking of family, of catechism, of the instruction of children and young people in the truths of the Word of God. I am speaking about the exercise of church discipline. I am speaking about worship.
So much has happened; the collapse is so obvious and so calamitous, as to leave us uncertain about what to say. It will be very hard to rebuild what has been destroyed, because what was once so good and powerful, once lost is almost impossible to reclaim. But surely enough is left for a beginning. Beyond any doubt there is room enough and to spare in this community and in this world for a strong, virile, vibrant Reformed witness, a witness borne by people who know who and what they are, what they believe, where they mean to be going, and how by God’s grace they are called to order their lives.
It has always been a mystery to me how folk, who express themselves as unhappy with their churches and who say at the same time that they are thoroughly Reformed, can take refuge in fundamentalistic, baptistic congregations. How can this be? How can one swallow a transition like that? I am not unchurching or declaring apostate baptistic and broadly evangelical congregations, but I do say emphatically that there is a vast difference between such congregations and the Reformed congregations you and I are to be building.
Sixth, I am convinced that we must draw some lines in our ecclesiastical situations beyond which we will not go and that we shall have to say: Thus far, and no farther. The lines will perhaps not always be the same. God’s calling is not invariably the same. Some have a vocation to linger longer in bad situations than others can manage to endure. Some have a vivacious spirit, a winsomeness of manner, an outlook that is so positive and attractive as to enable them to carry on where others of us could not manage to persevere for so much as a day.
God’s calling is not precisely the same in each case. But every single one of us has been called to be faithful and to say that, come what may, we will serve the Lord. For some of you it may be to say no to the quota system by which denominational institutions are funded, when some of these institutions can in good conscience no longer be supported. For others it will be to say no to the assessments levied by ecclesiastical assemblies, assessments used to carry on programs and to sustain ministries which violate the consciences of the faithful. The truth is that, whatever the weight and dignity given them by church tradition, denominational bureaucrats, hierarchs, church leaders, professors of theology, officers of synods, have no right whatever to constrain the conscience. The Westminster Confession of Faith has a marvelous statement on this topic which deserves to be trumpeted from the housetops.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to his Word; or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also (Chapter XX, Article II).
Where you draw the line you must yourself determine in your own conscience before God, as you seek His face and study His Word. But I am very sure that, if martyrs were required in the past, their modern equivalents may very well be necessary in our present ecclesiastical situations as well. There are obvious dangers. From one point of view it is far easier to go elsewhere than to stand and say, “I will not budge. I cannot violate my conscience. I dare not yield. The time has come to say once again, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ I will not do what they want me to do. I will not keep the company they want me to keep. Our congregation will be bold and faithful to God. We will listen to Him, rather than to the dictates of a classis or a synod.”
Seventh, I am absolutely sure that, as ministers, officers, congregations, we must be about the business of rebuilding a sound, faithful, holy church. In my convictions I am not an independent, a congregationalist. I never have been. But I believe and I think that in this Dr. Abraham Kuyper was certainly correct in the ecclesiological theory on which he grounded the Doleantie of 1886—that what matters most in the end is not a denominational organization, a structure, an ecclesiastical institution. What matters most and what matters at last is the congregation of God’s people. We cannot do very much, at least in the short term, about the classis or the synod, but we can certainly do something for the life and health and faithfulness of the congregations in which we have been entrusted with leadership positions.
We can begin to rebuild. We can resist the terrific pressure to introduce novelties for the sake of being contemporary with a view to luring people into the church by methods that have nothing whatever to do with God. We can begin again to introduce the preaching of the great doctrines of the Bible given expression in our catechism. We can certainly be far more assiduous and disciplined than we have allowed ourselves to become in instructing our children and young people in those same truths. We can begin to take seriously once more systematic family visitation. We can deal carefully with our membership roles and pay special attention to people who are drifting away from God and the church, or whose walk is in flagrant conflict with the precepts of the Scriptures. We can build. Yes, we can build.
There are many things we cannot do. And even in what we attempt we are utterly helpless to succeed without the enabling of the Holy Spirit. But we can begin to build. Preachers of the gospel can go home again and make a new commitment to their studies and to the proclamation of the Word of God. It is so easy for us to lose hope.
I have learned painfully in my own life that what congregations say may be very different from what they insist on having. They may say that they believe preaching is of supreme importance and that worship ought to be central to the life of the church. But when it comes to the actual assessment of the life of the church the position is very different. A pastor is now supposed to be much more skilled in establishing effective relationships in management, in stimulating people to action, in vision casting, in the introducing of interesting and exciting innovations, in being creative, than he is in the traditional disciplines. The fact is that preaching is pretty far down on the list of the priorities of most congregations, no matter what may be said to the contrary.
What is a man to do, a man who has been taught to believe, who has been led by the Scriptures to believe, that the preaching of the Word, as the Second Helvetic Confession puts it, is also the Word of God? What is a man to do who knows that when he speaks the both about the Lord Jesus Christ it is not only he who speaks but the Lord Jesus Himself who speaks through him? What is a man to do when people yawn out of boredom under the preaching and who put pressure on him to be jovial and anecdotal and practical and as brief as possible? It is no wonder that many men in the ministry are discouraged and downhearted, that a considerable number are fleeing from the pulpit. It is not strange that men who were trained for the ministry of the gospel are looking for ways and means of earning their livelihood in other settings.
You and I must make a new commitment to the pulpit, to preaching grace—pure, free, sovereign, beautiful, glorious grace. We need to build, to build where we are, to build now.
Eighth and finally, I broach a matter about which I have thought long and hard. I am not at all certain just how what I say can take place. But I press on you the need to begin at once, as soon as possible, to establish a fellowship which will take on some of the functions of denominations as we have known them. Can the Reformed Fellowship be asked to assume the initiative here? I speak of planning camps and conferences for our young people, who are no longer nourished in the old programs of this kind. Of meetings for ministers in which there can be mutual encouragement and accountability. Of a pooling of resources. Of a reaching out to each other across ecclesiastical lines. Of a coming into existence of some method of finishing the preparation of young men who believe themselves to be called to the ministry but for whom the existing seminaries may be inadequate. Any preacher knows that no theological seminary, whether orthodox or something else, can make a minister. The groundwork can be laid. Certain skills can be communicated. The Biblical languages can be taught. One can learn history and theology. But no seminary has ever yet made a minister.
My vision for myself and for you is that we move ahead in this direction, that we come to a meeting of the minds in what may emerge as the American trans-denominational equivalent of what is known in the Netherlands as the Gerefonneerde Bond (the Reformed Association). That group, which exists in the old Herwrmde Kerk (!), probably embraces more orthodox Reformed believers than does any other organization in the country.
I have no fixed notion of how we could accomplish such a goal, but we ought to be talking about it with one another. As I said earlier, we who are here for this meeting represent various connections and independent congregations. Surely it is true, however, that we stand for the same things. The adversaries we face are also the same. We are a relatively small company. Relatively speaking, not many people care. The great majority in the denominations in which we have our roots are rushing headlong in another direction. Do you not sense God’s call to you? Can you rest, day or night, while that call is on you to do something, to do what is in your reach to do, to come together with brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ who are also Reformed and Calvinistic and committed to the doctrines of grace and believe in the full authority of the Scriptures and who love and regard as precious the great confessions of our church and who think that the Reformed faith is not dying, that our present struggles represent what is only a sad interval, and that reformation and revival lie on the other side? Have we any other option but to come together, to find each other, to settle on a framework that will enable us to move forward in faith and for the both? May God help us!
Dr. de Witt is the pastor of the Seventh Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI.