(In the first part of this paragraph Kuyper has been discussing the question of reformation by gradual church renewal. He has compared the deterioration of the church with a sickness which strikes a body and he has compared the work of reformation to the work of a doctor who attempts to cure the diseases of the body. Particularly, he has emphasized the need for personal repentance and conversion which comes from a deep and profound conviction of sin as being absolutely essential to all church renewal. It is this subject which he continues in the remainder of this paragraph.)
But then, on the other hand, if that conviction of guilt in the people of God is living, and the Spirit of the Lord drives souls to awakening so that the law and testimony are again taken up and the covenant with the Almighty is again established in the heart and the home and the land, how then can the obedience of faithful servants be lacking?
That cannot be because the truth of God is as a fragrant oil which anoints the whole body. If the name of the Lord is again established in the hearts of His people, then not only godliness, but also the truth returns, and all heresy is threatened. Unnoticed, then, without anyone doing anything, the fundamentals of the truth again appear clearly before each one’s eyes so that they are seen and followed. And where once again the foundations of God’s mysteries of the soul provide assurance, there the power of that truth works of itself also in the thoughts which concern the institution of the church. The partially neglected office again begins to shine in its beauty. He who first brought his own opinions to the pulpit in pungent sentences, now denies himself and his former word, and again reveals the power of the Word of his God. He who once pawned his service to that Word, now causes that Word to punish sin in season and out of season and to promote godliness in the land. And when the power of that Word at last enlightens him and also throws light on his office, there also the duty to church government must enter his own consciousness and the minister of the Word can find no rest until the house of God is rebuilt.
The question from whom this church renewal which takes place in a gradual way must proceed, is not difficult to answer. It comes only if the Holy Spirit energizes ecclesiastical government or, better said, ecclesiastical gatherings.
One man alone or else a few together can never bring about a decisive or gradual church renewal, and the members of the church can, for the same reason, help even less to bring this about.
When one understands clearly that gradual church renewal consists in the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline and in the improvement of the Church Order, and when one knows that only lawful consistories, classes, and synods are qualified to attain both of these, then it is also clear that gradual church reformation can be brought into existence only by these ecclesiastical assemblies.
That which certain ministers and members of the church want to do in respect to church reformation exactly destroys the gradual character of church renewal and introduces radical surgery—a method of church reformation which we will discuss later. That which an individual minister or the members of the church can accomplish in this respect amounts to this that they implore church reformation from the Lord. They testify to and urge the obligation to reform. They as members of the church, through petition or protest, or also as ministers through advice and vote in the ecclesiastical assemblies, seek to discharge this duty of reform.
If a church, as is often the case, has entered into fraternal relations with other churches, then gradual church renewal is even more difficult. Then the question whether the church is in a position to exercise discipline and to improve the Church Order depends not only on the willingness of the consistory, but also on the cooperation of the other churches in classes and synods.
We do not mean that members, ministers, or also consistories must be kept for a lengthy time from the duty of church renewal by this obstacle. We mean only that as long as members, ministers, or consistories have exerted their own effort toward improvement, the medical way is abandoned and eo ipso (by the nature of the case), they proceed to the surgical method.
In this paragraph, which deals only with the medical method or with the gradual process of church renewal, this extraordinary or surgical method must be set aside, and it is with a view to this that we set down the rule: gradual church renewal in churches existing by themselves can only proceed from the consistories; but for churches in federation with other churches, church renewal can proceed from the consistory only in cooperation with classes and synod.
Concerning the way to follow in church renewal we can only give a hint because there are always here the:variis modis bene fit, i.e., one can accomplish this purpose in more than one good way.
The hints of a more general kind are restricted to these five:
1) The exercise of ecclesiastical discipline should precede doctrine and walk. A renewal of ecclesiastical discipline against heretics, sectarians, and schismatics which is not at the same time a renewal of discipline against the fornicator, drunkard, and blasphemer, will stand condemned before the conscientious people of God.
2) The making of careful distinction should control the renewal of ecclesiastical discipline.
An office bearer who is a poor teacher or who lives wickedly is more guilty than any member of the church who departs from the truth or wanders into sin. All discipline must begin with the discipline of those who hold an office. Only such office bearers who take heed to each other have the right to judge others.
Even so, with the renewal of discipline, after it has been long neglected, office bearers are to warn earnestly and frequently, in tender mercy, in the desire to win by the power of love; and then to proceed to censure and excommunication in connection with obvious impenitence or hardening.
Especially with respect to doctrine, sternness over against office bearers is paired with longsuffering over against the common members of the church.
There must be no hesitation with office bearers. He who would teach others must speak the word of the church. He who refuses or cannot, must not be spared. To spare him is to sacrifice the church. It is an appearance of love for one only with lack of love for the thousands in the background.
Nevertheless also this must be carefully considered: the solution to the problem of an earnest attempt towards church renewal is not resolved by immediately and inexorably deposing all preachers, elders, and deacons who refuse to sign the Three Forms of Unity; or, of such as those who after signing are charged with opposition to these forms. The fanatic who desires to ruin the church works in this way. But it would not be the church of Christ which prays for her enemies and denies herself to retain them.
The difficult task rests upon the ecclesiastical gatherings to distinguish spiritually between those who out of the evil of their hearts oppose the truth, and those who err out of ignorance. Unfailing patience, much power of persuasion, many gifts of wisdom are necessary to win those who can still be won before the thread is cut.
Naturally, it must finally come to this extreme with all who are hardened in their opposition. But who does not dare to hope that this would be different with many others?
For members one can go farther yet; and in the first instance only those must be attacked with discipline who openly oppose the teaching of the church through word or writing. But this discipline takes place only after the elders have enlightened with instruction, and by this means have gradually sorted out between those who with stubborn wills reject the truth and those who would drift along in the riverbed of the truth.
3) The improvement of the Church Order does not mean a mechanical improvement but an improvement which proceeds from the organic life of the church.
This comes about not by rules of order but by principles of church government. The purpose must be to let the sovereign grace of God rule in His church. For this reason, all that stands in the way of that sovereignty or hinders its complete operation must be removed. All the rest is secondary and necessarily unimportant. The yielding of all human words before the Word of God and the direct flowing forth of all human authority from King Jesus must be maintained with great urgency.
4) To attain this goal the composition of the reforming gatherings must be closely watched.
The majority must actually not decide. It is much better as long as people convince one another in the spirit of prayers that a unity of insight be attained. But because, finally, a majority could be taken against us, the composition of these meetings must not be a matter of indifference to us.
5) In these gatherings men must not themselves deny the principle for which one strives.
This can happen in many ways and one must watch against them.
First of all, one must see to it that no decision of such a gathering is made except the will be also behind the decision to execute it. Personal opinions must not dominate. There must be spiritually, clearly conscious conviction aroused; even though it be each according to his measure.
Secondly, one ought to decide if the meeting itself militates against the demand of God’s Word or against the sovereignty of King Jesus.
And, thirdly, he who has cooperated in a decision ought not to step back when it comes to the execution of it. He who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.