A perceptive analysis

Recently there appeared in two issues of the Banner a set of articles worthy of note. In the issues of Aug. 19 and 26, Robert De Lange, missionary at Charlotte, Michigan, sought to pinpoint some of the causes of the crises in the Christian Reformed Church. His analysis, to me, appears very accurate and to the point. Were his conclusions to be adopted within the CRC, I am convinced there would be a radical change in that denomination. The writer points to the evidences of Arminian approaches within his denomination. He explains that much of the difficulty in the CRC can be traced back to this Arminian tendency. He did not, obviously, point out that the common grace issue of 1924 gave a tremendous boost to this Arminianism in the CRC—specifically the adoption of the idea of a “well-meant offer of the gospel.” Yet one could wish and pray that the CRC would take the message to heart. I’d like to quote a few of the pertinent points of the articles.

The crises to which I’m referring affect a great deal more than merely the CRC. They are really tests of the whole Reformed system of theology. What seems really to be at stake are some ancient issues now being replayed. I believe that the methods and strategies of evangelism, the demise of morale and morals, the decline in church growth, attendance, and commitment can be attributed in a large degree to an increasing emphasis on Arminian concepts in the Reformed community, along with a steady decrease in the emphasis and practical implications of Calvinism, as defined by the Synod of Dordt, 1618-19. 

. . . Many Christians today are searching for personal assurance of the certainty of their faith and salvation. Closely tied to such a search is the need felt by others that their particular congregation needs renewal, almost to a rebaptism of the Spirit. Perhaps the reason such needs are felt is that while we have confessed historic Calvinism, we actually practice more of an Arminian emphasis. 

. . . If it is God who is the initiator and loving Father of our salvation and faith, then we have no choice but to submit in obedience to His call. In so doing we discover that through this obedience we find joy, peace and motivation, because God alone is the provider of all good and perfect gifts.

Could it be that while we confess the Canons of Dordt, in reality we find the practice of Arminianism much more to our tastes, that we like being our own masters, and that we think it is really up to us to take it or leave it? But what kind of assurance, hope, or basis for motivation is that? It leaves us with the delusion of assurance that is as whimsical as the human spirit.

Third, within the arena of church growth discussions and methods of evangelism, we can see a good deal of Arminian input. We seem to be under a lot of pressure to implement church growth in terms of increased conversions and to use all the principles of Big Business in order to be popularly appealing. To be sure, the very purpose of the church is missions. But I’d like to suggest that the issue of size, number of conversions, popular appeal, and strategies of evangelism are largely influenced by Arminian Calvinism distinction.

For example, if man is ultimately responsible for his salvation, then it makes very good sense to enter the game of commercialization. Faith is then a product of man. And like man’s other products and services, his faith too must be sold; the better the salesman and the program the higher the sales. Once we enter that game, however, the reverse also tends to be true; the poorer the salesman the worse the sales. Could this be the incentive behind some of our current desires to initiate bigger and better, more enticing evangelism programs, and the subsequent push to train slicker salesmen?

If, on the other hand, God is ultimately the initiator and actor of the plan of salvation, then man’s efforts must be concentrated on being obediently faithful—which may or may not entail better advertising. The question of goods and services is no longer the primary issue or motivation, and the fruits of faithfulness remain wholly the blessing of God alone—which may or may not be high conversion returns.

In a subsequent article, the author points out the positive calling of the Calvinist and what is involved in that. He emphasizes that the central calling of the church is to be obedient.

The primary motive, then, behind any method of evangelism or church growth discussions must be obedience. It is not, first of all, to secure some sign of personal assurance of belief—although we might surely hope that such assurance is forthcoming. By concerning ourselves primarily with being obedient, we are no longer worried about “making a sale,” because the “sale” is not ours to make but God’s. By being obedient, we place the emphasis, first of all, on being “kind to one another,”

Eph. 4:23,

and “living peaceably with all men, so far as is possible.”

Rom. 12:18

By being obedient we realize that God is at work, through us, to make known His electing love to others as He chooses, not as we may choose.

…The importance of stressing obedience as the response to God’s election is that is maintains the distinction between what God does and what man is able to do. It constrains us both in perspective and methodology to remember that our concern is not, first of all, to secure a high rate of conversions. The issue is not, first of all, whether or not we have led anyone to Christ, but whether we have been obedient…

…Further, since we are not the one ultimately responsible for the plan of salvation, but God alone, the mission in which we are engaged cannot fail. The genius of the Calvinistic system of thought is that it embodies completely the fact that God conquers Satan! God is not dependent on man’s willingness to cooperate. The whole of salvation is completely God’s action. That is why it cannot fail. And that’s assurance! That’s motivation! He did what man could not do in order that man could be truly man again, obedient creature to the Creator.

I would strongly recommend both articles for more careful study. One could wish more of such would appear in the Banner.

Membership decline

From the Clarion comes the report of declining membership in the Reformed Churches (Synodical) in the Netherlands. Before 1970 these churches had a growth rate of some 10,000 per year. After 1974 this growth rate almost completely disappeared. In 1977 these churches have been losing members. In 1976 the membership decreased by some 2,400 members. The trend is similar to that seen in many churches who have been departing from their old heritage. At least some of the members who depart, appear to do so because they are not being fed with the pure Word of God in the preaching on Sunday.

What now?

So asks the last News Bulletin of the Association of Christian Reformed Laymen. These write:

As a result of this sad state of affairs, the CRC through its Synods, has lost at least two of the marks of the true church as given to us in the Belgic Confession, Article XXIX, namely: The pure preaching of the Word and Church discipline.

Do you believe this is too harsh a statement? Well, let’s look at the record of the last ten years at synod. We present the following partial list of well-documented cases: 

1. Prof. H. Dekker (1967)—Denied the doctrine of limited atonement. Synod slapped his wrist but failed to discipline. He is still teaching in the Seminary. 

2. Prof. L. Sweetman (1968)—Preached admittedly questionable sermon in Fuller Ave. CRC in Grand Rapids. Protest against it was not upheld by Synod. He is still teaching in Calvin College. 

3. Dr. Willis De Boer (1970-1972)—Views on early chapters of Genesis were protested by Central Ave. Holland, CRC. Protest not upheld by Synod. He is still teaching in Calvin College. 

4. Dr. Allen Verhey (1976-1977)—Denied plain statements of Scripture in his classical examination as a candidate. Was ordained anyway with approval of Classis GR East. Protests to synod were not dealt with honestly but were shunted aside in 1976 and 1977 on technicalities. More of the same is likely when the case comes up again in 1978. 

5. Dr. Harry Boer (1977)—Questions the doctrine of reprobation. Presents a gravamen to the effect to Synod 1977. Synod declares “open season” on the Canons of Dordt for the next three years. Unthinkable a few years ago!

This is indeed a “harsh” statement. Consider: if two marks of the church are gone, it can not be maintained that even the third (proper administration of sacraments) is still present—for it is intimately related to the first (pure preaching). This, however, places the writers in a terrible position. By their statement, they continue as members in a false church, which one who maintains the Netherlands Confession, may never do. 

One can sympathize with those who believe strongly that their church departs from the faith once delivered to the saints. But, if they maintain their claim, they are presently in an utterly untenable position.