[NOTE: The following address was delivered on the occasion of the beginning of the new term at the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, at “Seminary Night,” Sept. 9, at our Hope Protestant Reformed Church. For the convenience of our readers, we also quote the Scripture passage referred to, which was read at this convocation.]
“If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Ye shall walk after the Lord your God, and Fear Him, and keep His commandments, and obey His voice, and ye shall serve Him, and cleave unto Him.
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the Lord thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.”
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ:
These remarks based on Deuteronomy 13, especially verses 1-5, I address particularly to the student body with you who are present at this gathering as witnesses, although all of us may well benefit from and heed them with respect to the calling and life of the church today.
There is a great hue and cry going up today—also in the Reformed community—that the church must revamp her structures, reform her theological expressions, rechannel her resources. It is a cry against theological and confessional orthodoxy, A cry, it is, not to be concerned any longer with the purity of the church, and a cry to do away with the institutional stability of the church. At the basis of that general hue and cry is a disjunction, a separation, a false contrast between theological orthodoxy and subjection to the Lord Christ, between faithfulness to the confessions and the Word of Christ, between the battle of the church, the battle for the truth, and obedience to the calling and mission of the church in the midst of the world. Most seminaries today do not only heed that loud hue and cry, but they also take the lead in sounding it, both to the church round about them in which they serve and to the students whom they are supposedly training for the gospel ministry.
We are different! And that difference is a calculated and intentional difference. And it is a basic difference. And—what I especially wish to lay upon your hearts as we begin this school term—that difference is a spiritual difference. The heart of the Word of God in this passage which speaks of lying prophets and their lying signs and wonders is: Love Jehovah your God, and abstain from the service of other gods! Here you have expressed the deepest spiritual principle with respect to all theology: it is either the service of the Lord your God, or it is the service of other gods and the temptation away from the service of the Lord your God.
This passage speaks of prophets. A prophet, in general, was one who claimed to speak and to-teach the truth, to reveal to the people the will of God. With regard to such prophets, there were three possibilities. The first is that of the true prophet. He was one who spoke in harmony with Moses, that is, in harmony with the revealed will of God, the Scriptures, and who therefore would furnish signs and would speak things that would follow and come to pass. The second possibility was that of the false prophet who would presume to speak a word in the name of the Lord, but whose word would not come to pass nor follow,Deuteronomy 18:18-22. And the third possibility was that of the false prophet who might have. signs and wonders, even signs and wonders which come to pass, but who directly contradicted Moses, that is, contradicted the revealed Word of God. He was a lying prophet with lying wonders.
It is about that last, the lying prophet with lying wonders, that Deuteronomy 13 speaks.
And we must not miss the point with respect to these signs and wonders. The text says that such a prophet or dreamer of dreams gives a sign or a wonder; and the sign or the wonder whereof such a prophet spoke would come to pass! A sign is the prediction of a future event or a remarkable event which comes to pass. And a wonder, closely related to the idea of a sign, is some mighty work performed by such a prophet. But the point is that these were propercredentials of a prophet. This is according to Scripture itself in Deuteronomy 18. Such signs and wonders apparently testified that here was a genuine prophet, testified that God was with him.
But the testimony of his credentials was only anapparent testimony!
For the prophet spoken of in this passage is evidently a lying prophet. He employed his signs and wonders in support of and to lend credibility to the he. And notice the lie: “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them.” Now that strikes at the very heart of all the Mosaic revelation, that is, at the very heart of the whole divine revelation through Moses—and remember, that means at the very heart of the whole of the Word of God: for the Word of God is one! The heart of that revelation is this as to its deepest spiritual, ethical principle: “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. Thou shalt walk after the Lord your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and thou shalt serve him, and cleave unto him.”
Now there are several inferences which may correctly be drawn from this statement. But I call your attention to the one fundamental implication which evidently has the emphasis in this passage, namely, that false prophets are characterized by this, that they contradict the Word of God. This is the main point here.
Of course, such false prophets do not bluntly say in so many words, “Let us serve other gods.” This would never be successful. But they garb their teaching in pious form, in religious form, in prophetic form, apparently in revelatory, Biblical form. They claim, “We also are prophets. We also speak the will of God!” However, if what they say is tested by the revealed will of God, by the Word of God—which is, after all, the only ultimate test—their teachings are found to be contradictory of that Word of God. And then, though it may seem to be pious—though, we would say today, though it may seem to sound Christian and evangelical—you can briefly characterize it as coming down to this: “Let us go after other gods.” This is the central contents of all such false prophecy and false teaching. In this you have expressed the central purpose of it. And in this you have expressed the ultimate outcome and end of all that heed such teaching: they follow after other gods! Or, to put it in up-to-date terminology: here you have expressed the central contents, the central purpose, and the outcome of all false theology: in the deepest sense it is characterized by saying, “Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them.”
This is historically true.
It was true among Israel. Their history is full of examples of such false prophets. Sometimes the test of Deuteronomy 18 could be applied to them: the things which they spoke, their signs and wonders, failed to come to pass. Then it was fairly simple. But it is evident from this passage that sometimes the power of darkness works lying wonders and mighty works. The passage speaks of a prophet who gives a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass. God allows it and so directs things that their signs and wonders are realized.
And thus it has been also in the history of the new dispensation. There has been and still is the lie of Roman Catholicism, for example. How often it has been confirmed by lying signs and wonders! Or there is the lie of spiritualism, or the lie of Pentecostalism or so-called neo-Pentecostalism: confirmed by lying signs and wonders! There is the lie of modernism and its contradiction of the Word of God. It teaches that Jesus Christ is not come in the flesh. He is a noble man, and He is a great teacher; but He is not the Son of God incarnate. In particular there has been in our century, and there is today with renewed emphasis and with greater insidiousness than ever before, the lie of the social gospellers—a lie which is propagated increasingly in the Reformed community also. (In parentheses, let me remark that I think it a mistake to characterize it as emphasizing the horizontal aspect of faith more strongly than the vertical; that is, after all, only a relative difference. Besides, it involves a false disjunction again.) But it comes with the gospel that we must improve the world and try to make it into a kingdom of God. We must bring about renewal in society; we must proclaim social reconciliation. And we can do it, they say! Look at all our mighty works! Look how we can cast out devils—the devil of war and the devil of racism and the devil of poverty! Look how we can subdue the powers of nature and of the universe! We have the credentials! There is reason to believe us! And there are many taking up that hue and cry today. The church must forget its preoccupation with orthodoxy and with purity and with isolation and safety and institutional structure and must become open to the whole world! Let us go after other gods!
Moreover, Scripture emphasizes that in the latter days this very phenomenon will be emphasized. Did not our Lord say, Matthew 24:24: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect?” And is not the Man of Sin described in II Thessalonians 2:9, 10 in these words, “whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish?” And is not the second beast described in Revelation 13:13ff, as doing great wonders and deceiving them that dwell on the earth by miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast? And notice, with respect to all these passages, that the central characteristic of these false prophets is the same as in Deuteronomy 13: they contradict the Scriptures and say, “Let us serve other gods!”
It is in this context—I propose—that we must view theology and the matter of right and wrong theology, and, along with that, the whole matter of training in right or wrong theology, or, if you will, the right or wrong training and preparation for the ministry of the gospel. It is exactly as serious and fundamental as that. Either: “Let us love and serve Jehovah our God—and that is the God Who has revealed Himself, the God of the Scriptures!” Or: “Let us go after other gods—contrary to those Scriptures!” A third possibility there is not. And this is, in deepest essence, what your work in the seminary and your preparation for the ministry is all about.
But there is more.
Notice that this passage teaches plainly that the Lord our God has His purpose with these lying prophets and their lying wonders. He is sovereign, remember. He is sovereign not merely in the sense that He is confronted by the phenomenon of these lying prophets and that He is able to use them and foil them. But He is in sovereign control in the complete sense. That they are there, and that they are lying prophets, and that they give signs and wonders, and that they approach the church with these,—all this is according to His sovereign counsel and providence. This is the implication of the statement, “for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God. . . .”
Briefly, the Lord’s proving of His people includes three things. In the first place, to prove is to apply a test by which to detect and to distinguish the genuine and true from the false. In the second place, to prove is to sift, to separate the true from the false, and thus to purify. And, in the third place, to prove has its purpose and result in causing the true and the genuine to appear more clearly and more gloriously. Here this idea is applied to God’s people, to Israel, that is, to the church as it appears in the midst of the world.
But notice a very striking fact here, one which should speak to us very loudly.
The viewpoint of this proving is not that of knowledge. You might expect that it would be exactly this question of knowledge of the Word of God, knowledge of the truth. When the question is one of recognizing and detecting errors, one of not heeding lying prophets, when the issue is that of a doctrine contradictory to the Word of God, would not the test be one of knowledge? Would you not almost expect the text to say here: “for the Lord your God proveth you to know whether ye know His revelation, His Word and His commandments?” But this is not the case. This is not because such knowledge is not necessary—in fact, indispensable. It is, indeed, necessary. In order to detect and to ward off lying prophets and their lies it is important to be founded in the knowledge of the truth over against false prophets. In fact, all other things being equal, he who is most thoroughly founded in the truth of the Word of God is best capable of detecting and warding off the attacks of enemies of the truth. But this is rather assumed here. It is assumed that they know the Lord God, that they have heard His voice, that they have been taught His Word, His commandments.
No, the viewpoint of this proving is a deeper one, a spiritual one. It is the viewpoint of the love of God! That emphasizes not that there is a disjunction between knowledge and love, between orthodoxy and love, between right theology and love. It emphasizes rather that in the deepest sense of the word the question is a spiritual one. It is not one of the head, but of the heart. It is not one of knowledge, but of principle. From that point of view, you see, you can be, so to speak, two hundred per cent orthodox; but ultimately you will go away on some occasion after other gods, after false doctrine—for whatever may be the reason. For if the love of God is in our hearts, we will not serve other gods. If the love of God is in our hearts, we will reject all doctrine militating against the Word of God. And if we do follow after false prophets and false teachers, it is in the deepest sense because the love of God is not in our hearts.
In other words, right doctrine and following after the truth and faithfulness in our confession is in its deepest spiritual essence a question of the love of God! This is the perspective which we must never lose in all our theology! And this must be the motivation to move us to labor faithfully and diligently according to the ability which God gives us!
In this attitude of the love of God, it is plain what our attitude must be. We must apply the Word of God. Here the test is not that of signs and wonders. They may be lying signs and wonders, which are used to confirm the lie. That, therefore, cannot be the final criterion. But the criterion is that of the Word of God, His revelation. This test is infallible, and dependable. And it is clear and perspicuous, within the reach of all God’s people. Hence, if anything is in harmony with the Word of God, cling to it, seek it with all your heart, follow it—even though all things seem to be against it. And if anything is not in harmony with that Word of God, then, for the sake of the love of God, as surely as you love Jehovah your God, reject it—even though all the mighty works and lying wonders are in favor of it. For it leads you to other gods!
And our attitude must be one, too, of resolute rejec rejection of the false prophet. In Israel such a man had to be killed! That was due, of course, to the national theocratic form of the church. And there might be no mercy and no reprieve, whether the false prophet was a stranger or your closest friend or relative! That has been characterized as cruel and hard and contrary to the spirit of the New Testament by some. This only arises from false and wicked sentiment. For would not such a false prophet bring upon Israel all the terrible curses of Deuteronomy 28? Was not such a false prophet a cruel and wicked murderer of soul and body? Was he not an enemy of God? It was the true love of God and true mercy toward God’s people to kill such a one!
And our attitude must be the same in the dispensation. No, we do not kill: for the church does not bear the sword in the new dispensation. But we must consider such a one an enemy, not a friend. We must consider him a most dangerous and destructive agent in the church. We must have no fellowship with such. We must receive him not in our houses, nor bid him Godspeed.
For the Lord your God proves you by him, that you should love the Lord your God, and keep yourselves from idols!