There are especially three significant facts connected with this happy occasion which come to mind.
In the first place, there is the significant fact that this is the very first pre-seminary graduation which our school and our churches are observing. This is a milestone for our Theological School, and I believe that our graduates may count it a distinctive privilege that they are the first graduates of our pre-seminary department. We have had pre-seminary training in our school before, of course. In fact, to some degree we have had such training in our school since its beginning; and in recent years, starting approximately in the mid-1960s there has been a renewed emphasis upon such training, and a kind of trial period with a view to the establishment of a formal program. But it was only a few years ago that this formal pre-seminary department was established. And while some of today’s graduates had only a small part of their pre-seminary training here and others had a large part of it here, the fact remains that this is the first graduating class of pre-seminarians. May it be not by any means the last! And may we have the sanctified foresight to go forward and to enlarge and expand this program as much as possible and as soon as possible! I am convinced of its need, and convinced also of its benefits. And I make bold to say that in the future our churches shall also reap abundant benefits from this program.
In the second place, I find it to be significant that this pre-seminary graduation takes place in the Fiftieth Anniversary Year of our churches and our seminary. For one thing, that means that we have not stood still for fifty years. We have made progress. In fact, celebrating this graduation here, in the assembly room of our seminary building, we are surrounded by tangible evidence of that progress also. This is a joy to me personally, and it should be reason for joy for all of us. At the same time, this occasion of our Fiftieth Anniversary reminds us of the past, and of our heritage, which we through the covenant faithfulness of our God may still have and still maintain in a lively way.
In the third place, in connection with the fact of our Fiftieth Anniversary I am reminded of the swift passage of history, and of time and generations in the church of our God, and particularly our Protestant Reformed Churches. This fact impresses itself upon me at this natural occasion for inventory very emphatically. I am referring now not so much to the increasing signs and awareness that our Lord is coming quickly. That, too! But what impresses me is the fact that the first generation of our churches is rapidly disappearing from the battlefield, while the third generation is just as rapidly called to take its place. This group of graduates this morning represents exclusively the third generation in our churches. They know nothing by experience of our origin not only; but what is even more impressive is the fact that all of them have lived through less than half of the history of our churches.
For all of these reasons I thought it expedient to speak this morning on the subject: LEST WE FORGET.
In general, we should not forget, but remember, what took place in 1924. That is to say, we should not forget the reason why we are Protestant Reformed, the reason of our origin and the reason for our continued existence 50 years later. Along with that, we should not forget what took place in the early 1950s about the time of the twenty-fifth anniversary of our denomination. I mention that not only because the events of that time constituted a crisis for our denomination, a crisis in which our very existence was threatened for a time, so that it was very difficult for us to continue as a communion of churches. But I mention it also because 1953 and 1924 were very intimately related. Fundamentally, what was at stake in 1953 was the very reason of our existence and our origin as that came to light in 1924. We might have continued as a separate denomination if our enemies had triumphed in 1953; but the reason for our separate existence would have been gone, and the name Protestant Reformed would have had a hollow ring.
Let me briefly enter into some particulars. What, specifically, must we remember?
It is not the many unpleasant events, the much malicious personal animosity, the perverse scheming and plotting, and the wicked stratagems which were devised which we should remember. There were such things at both the occasions which I mentioned previously. But, apart from the lessons which we may learn from those things—and, surely, one of the lessons to be learned is that we should not be too naïve—I say, apart from any lessons to be learned from those things, they are much better forgotten. And we may safely leave them to the Lord.
But there are two principles which we should remember.
The first is the church political principle which is a fundamental principle of our Reformed form .of church government, the synodical-Presbyterian form of government. That is the principle that a synod or a classis has no judicatory authority in a local congregation. A broader ecclesiastical assembly has not the power of the offices in the church. It cannot preach; it cannot administer sacraments; it cannot discipline. A classis or a synod cannot depose a consistory. In fact, it is incorrect to speak of classis and synod as higher and highest assemblies, but only as broader and broadest assemblies. Positively speaking, this is the principle of the autonomy of the local congregation—to be distinguished from independentism on the one hand, and from collegialism, on the other hand. It is the anti-hierarchy principle, a principle which our churches learned to cherish in their history at, great cost.
The second principle is a doctrinal principle. It is a principle that is very familiar to all of you, but which, I warn you, must never become contemptible to us for its very familiarity. It must never become commonplace, but always be counted a very precious heritage. I refer, of course, to the principle that God’s grace is always particular, and efficacious in His elect people in Christ. Negatively, that principle is that the grace of God is never common, and that it is never a mere offer. Along with that, of course, goes the principle that outside of the regenerating grace of God, man, being by nature totally depraved, is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil.
It is these principles which were denied by our mother denomination in 1924. And it is these same principles—let us never forget it—which were again at stake in the years 1950 to 1953. I remember well how as a young minister I was simply appalled at the fact that in Classis West one of the consistories came with an overture concerning the Declaration of Principles which was under discussion in those days, which was nothing more nor less than the proposition of the First Point of 1924. And I remember well how I was even more appalled at the fact that not one of my colleagues at the Classis criticized that overture. And I remember well how I was most appalled at the fact that no one even had the courage to discuss or to debate the matter, even when I personally made the criticism just mentioned. That was indeed therefore, the issue.
And we must remember that these things constitute the reason why we are Protestant Reformed, and why, before the face of God, we must be!
There are, of course, more elements belonging to our heritage. Chiefly, and inseparably connected with the preceding, there is the truth of the organic conception of the development of the covenant of God, and that too, in connection with the organic development of all things, according to the sovereign counsel of God, and along the lines of election and reprobation. I say emphatically: this, too, is inseparably connected with what I have previously mentioned, and that in such a way that the truth concerning God’s covenant cannot be maintained apart from the truth that God’s grace is always particular. Nor is that church political principle which I mentioned incidental. We must remember that it is always the forces of hierarchy in the church of Jesus Christ which are ultimately also the forces which deny and oppose the truth of our Reformed heritage.
These things we must not forget.
There is danger that we might forget them, indeed.
One of the reasons why there is such danger is the general reason of the passage of time and the changes which accompany that passage. I am reminded of that very vividly this morning when I look at these young men, our graduates. Make no mistake. I am thankful for them. I am thankful for the fact that they have come to our school from among our churches, and that they are committed to our Protestant Reformed heritage. But the fact of the matter is that as far as our history is concerned, they are babes in the woods. They have not experienced much of that history. And they have not experienced the two significant events in that history which I have already mentioned. Their portion has been and will be to experience other events, and undoubtedly also other crises. But my point is now that the mere passage of time and the mere lack of experience constitutes a danger, nevertheless. It is simply a fact that one remembers more vividly and more clearly that which he has experienced and that for which he has had to fight and that which he has obtained and retained in the crucible of testing. This makes it the more incumbent upon us, both as faculty and as students, to see to it that this heritage is passed on by way of instruction and learning.
There are other reasons which may be mentioned. There is the reason that others, particularly those who oppose us, though they be Reformed in name, like to forget these things. And there is the reason that under certain circumstances some of us like to forget these things. The truth of the Word of God is never popular. It is narrow. It is intolerant of the lie. And it is not pleasing to the flesh of any of us to be unpopular, to belong to the minority, to belong to those who are despised. It is not pleasing to the flesh always to have to fight for the truth, to fight to maintain it, to fight, if need be, even against those who are near you and perhaps dear to you in the same church or communion of churches. All these things are reasons why there is a danger that we might forget.
And we must not forget. We must not forget because it is our calling to maintain the church of Jesus Christ in the world according to its marks. We must not forget because this is chiefly determined by the truth. Hence, the truth we must know. The truth we must never forget, but always remember. And we must not forget, because if we forget, we cannot be faithful to our calling as churches and as people of God in the midst of the world.
Our last question is: how shall we not forget? How shall we remember?
And I wish to answer that question particularly with application to our pre-seminary graduates today.
Largely your studies until now have been preparatory. True, you have had so-called content-courses. And in these courses, in so far as you have studied in them at our school, the principles which I have mentioned have already come to light. But for the most part you have been busy in your studies obtaining the tools which are necessary for your future seminary studies. It is in this connection that I want to emphasize that you must use those tools. You must use them proficiently. You must put them to use in your future studies in our seminary department. But I want to emphasize particularly that you must use them to study and to prepare strictly in the service of the truth of the Word of God as He has given it to us as a very precious heritage. And I mean strictly in the use of learning to know and to understand that peculiar heritage which the Lord has given us as Protestant Reformed Churches. All your learning, all the degree of academic excellence which you have attained or which you may attain in the future, will be of absolutely no worth unless it stands in the service of the truth. If you are to remember our heritage, remember the principles which I have mentioned, then you must study. You must use all the means which God has given. you in order to study the principles of the truth, as well as to study all heresies repugnant thereto, in order that you may become prepared to maintain that truth, and, the Lord willing, to preach it and to teach it to the people of God in the years to come.
May God give you that grace and that consecration in the future.