A Pamphlet on the Reformation of the Church

(In the last paragraph Kuyper has begun chapter 3 of this pamphlet which deals with the deformation of the church. Kuyper introduced this general subject with a discussion of various kinds of imperfect churches: mission churches, churches under persecution, and aggrieved churches.) 

37. How the Deformation Of the Churches Is To Be Explained 

The deformation of the church is always and under all circumstances a matter of guilt taking its course through the sin into which the church has fallen before her God. We may distinguish a threefold cause: the sin of a few persons, the sin of the church, and the author of all sin, i.e., Satan. From the most distant cause, which is Satan, proceeds every outrage and every evil attack against the church of Christ. Immanuel celebrates His victory in His church, and Satan, who never suffers more deeply than under the victory of Christ, is moved most fiercely and in greatest fury against the church of Christ. For him that church of Christ is a thorn in the eye and he moves up from below the gates of hell to overcome that church of God. We ought not to think too slightly of that might of Satan. He who follows the progress of the church’s history from the beginning of the world till now or, more particularly, from the renewal of the church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, or also from her restoration during the days of the Reformation, is continuously amazed at the striking fact that the church of God, during these sixty centuries, has known no apparent growth and victorious rest for even the space of three centuries. During far and away the greater part of these centuries the church of God is scarcely recognizable. At other times during these centuries it is scattered, tossed about, and barely able to be found. And in the small part of these centuries in which it did have rest, one finds a church with an internal life struggle, with the blood rushing through its veins in terrible fever and just risen from deep sickness. And see, presently again, it is threatened by new illness. This oppression and opposition is brought upon the church so completely by Satan that the church’s most sensitive sons and daughters repeatedly ask a fearful question: if they should fall prey to one unbelievably small mistake, they are already looked at as the church of Christ which has become the synagogue of Satan. (The source of the Donatist struggle is found in an effort to escape that stream of error and unrighteousness.) From this comes the desire to flee to the free city of God. And from this proceeds the effort to manifest a purer and holier church with no one but God’s saints in it. This attempt to attain a pure church is often repeated, but it is just as frequently judged by the outcome: a falling into a deeper error than they tried to escape because what is basically pride has come under the terrible judgment of God. 

Satan has manifested this bitter enmity against the church of God in two different ways, to wit, partly by external persecution, partly by internal poisoning. Always a murderer from the beginning, he is also a murderer of the church of the Lord. First then, he sets the magistrates and powers of the world on the church in order to test with brutal force the place where the hollow of the foot of the church of God is; to kill, to murder, and to root out the faithful witness which proclaims the death of Christ as the mighty sacrifice for redemption; to hurt the small sheepfold unmercifully through the fear of torture; to torment and to scatter until there is a moment when the church of God seems no longer to exist. But looked at in retrospect such a triumph of evil generally had the opposite effect, and the church of God produced a new seed from the blood of martyrs and repeatedly hindered Satan. Because of this, Satan moved the world to contract peace with the church; he prompted the magistrates to load the church with treasure, favor, and honor; and when the poor church, stunned by so much brilliance and glory, fell asleep in her triumph, then the .evil enemy came in the still of the night and dropped his deadly poison into her veins, so that she felt, after not many days, her spiritual strength give way, and she had (again) to exchange her triumphal song for the bitter and sad complaints of her deadly exhaustion and spiritual decline. 

Yet Satan could not bring this fearful evil on the church of God in any other way than under the permission and control of Almighty God. If God had willed that His church on earth had celebrated her victory in quiet peace, it would have happened. But this was not His good pleasure. A church gathered from the wicked in the midst of a wicked world God had given over again and again into the hand of Satan as He did Job. This is partly because the triumph of the truth would shine through spiritual struggle, and partly because the power of the Lord of lords is the glorious result of the perseverance of the church which is always under fierce attack. He is thus not an author or operator of the evil that comes upon His church, but nevertheless this evil over the church must be brought about according to His eternal and unshakeable purpose, viz., the evil of suffering, so that it may be manifest what is the power of the faith which He has put in her; and likewise, the evil of sin so that it may be manifest what is the power of instruction from which He has delivered her. But however much we pay homage to the majesty of the counsel of the Lord without fear and with all resoluteness so that He is esteemed for not only tolerating but also willing this raging of Satan against the church of Christ, yet this does not take away from the children of God their deep, shocking, and irresponsible guilt. We surely confess from the heart that God’s inscrutable order to permit the history of our race to go through sin and grace, in no respect exalts the damnable guilt of Adam. How much less can there be sought in that counsel of God an escape from guilt for God’s regenerated children who have tasted the power of the coming age, who know the love of Christ, and who can lift up the shield of faith, but who have not yet quenched the fiery darts of Satan, and who have, with unholy lust, received these darts into their own breasts. And therefore we must not remain with the most distant cause of this deformation in the church, but must also enter into the nearer causes which lie in the sin of each person and in the sin of the church. 

We mention first sins of individuals because this concerns the conscience most sharply. The sins of individuals began already while Jesus was still on earth. They began with that question: “Lord, who will be the greatest? Lord, when wilt thou establish the kingdom of Israel?” Or, in that saying: “Lord, this shall not happen to you!” Or, in the flight of the disciples when Jesus was captured; or in the denial of Jesus when He was examined; or in that saying: “If I do not see, I will never believe”; or, in that dissembling of Peter at Antioch, and in who knows how much more. And these were the holy apostles who would sit with Jesus on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. What must then happen to the church? Yea, what had not already happened to her when she was just expanding and still showing the freshness of her first power of life? Is not an Ananias and Sapphira a shameful thing? Is not the word “shameful” too sparing for the abomination which Corinth experienced? And what shall we say of the abomination, risen in the church, when Jude had to write his letter and Peter his second epistle? and when the Lord Himself on Patmos proceeded to threaten His church? This evil has since proceeded under various forms, various sins, even the most appalling which men would not even mention, repeatedly creeping into the church of God among God’s own people, rousing Him to anger, He Who has called and justified them into His most marvelous light. They should stand against the world; but see, they have brought the world into the church. They ought to serve God, not men; but see, mammon has gained an undisputed triumph in so many hearts. They should bring the flesh under the Spirit; and behold, they walk in the flesh again. Yea, Satan’s work should lie defeated; but rather the soul walks with Satan in a cursedly unholy alliance. Thus spiritual power declines. Faith languishes. Love withers. Hope fades. And prayer, which ought to have been a power, loses ardor and animation and force. Poor church of God! What is worse, if sins overcome a person outside the church, then at least these sins come alone; but if they rise among the people of the Lord, then they drag along yet another terrible sin, namely, the sin of Phariseeism. Men cannot sin openly in the church and say: “I am godless.” And so it is that in connection with sin in the church, piety must always be observed. And that exactly makes for doublemindedness, cultivates spiritual falsehood, and produces such spiritual evil that from the lips of Christ Who continuously prays for the elect of God, come the words, “Woe, woe, thou adder’s brood.” Satan knows that. He sets his heart on it. First he injects the poison of sin. Then he covers the boil of sin with bandages of piety. And in this way the heart that God the Lord has chosen for His temple can be entirely destroyed. 

Finally, besides the sin of individuals, there is the sin of the church. As members of the church men do many things together. Together they form a sphere of life in which a certain atmosphere rules. They breathe from and in a certain atmosphere in which they all live together. They form common ideas. They shape a moral judgment. They create a common opinion which becomes a power in the church. And thus it is that corporate responsibility and also corporate guilt exist which work most perniciously on the few; and doing this they infect the whole of the body of Christ until at last even the holiest give in; and so sin becomes general in the church of God. This can go so far that finally also for the church of the New Testament the word comes: “If you spread out your hands, then I hide My face and if you multiply prayer, then I do not hear.” 

But just as in the oak and in the hedge oak there is still life after the fading of the leaves, so also the holy seed shall then still be the support of the church of Christ. His mercies are unending, and His calling without repentance. 

This is the sole mystery by which the church of God continues to stand.