Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

My last letter to you ended with a promise of more to come on the whole subject of practical preaching. I am firmly of the conviction that the preaching ought to be relevant—in the good sense of the word; and it ought to be relevant by addressing itself to the specific problems of life which face the people of God. But I ended with a warning that there are dangers involved—dangers of which you ought to be aware. 

To get at this, I want to come back briefly to a remark you made in your letter. You suggested strongly that preaching is lacking in one important respect. You write: “Preaching ought to be concerned with the walk of a Christian in such a way that the Christian life is not treated as an unattainable ideal, but is something which ought to be strived for daily.” 

I think it best to comment first of all on this matter. 

Scripture is very clear in presenting to us the “ideal” when it comes to us with its many admonitions. These admonitions do not call the Christian to a “half-perfect” life, to a certain measure of sanctification which is far from perfection, to a kind of halfway holiness. When Scripture admonishes us (whatever now may be the nature of that admonition, and whatever may be the particular sin or sins to which Scripture is calling our attention), Scripture does so in such a way that it makes clear that God is satisfied with nothing less than perfection. I do not have to belabor the point, I think. You have only to look for yourself at any admonition. I could point you to that extremely important and awesome calling which Peter includes in his first epistle: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation: Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” I Peter 1:15, 16. The point made here can very well be applied to every admonition in Scripture: God requires of us a holiness which is no less than the holiness which characterizes His own divine being. 

This, quite naturally, presents. us with a problem. The problem is, in brief, this: how can these admonitions be taken seriously by the congregation when the same Scriptures teach that, as long as we live on this earth, we shall remain very sinful? Our Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the fact that “we have only a small beginning of the new obedience”, and that “even our best works are corrupted and polluted by sin.” If these statements of the Catechism are true, how is it then that we can take seriously the admonitions of Scripture which call us to total perfection in the whole of our life? 

This problem is not only a theological difficulty, but a very practical one from the viewpoint of the people of God. That this is so is best illustrated by the fact that every minister, I suppose, at one time or another has had someone from his congregation come to him after a sermon on one of Scripture’s admonitions with the remark: “Reverend, I agree with what you said; but you must remember that we are very sinful people and that we can never attain to that holiness. We fall far short.” Maybe the words are not always the same, but the sentiments expressed are common enough. The people of God have a problem with this. 

What is the solution? 

You can, of course, take the path of Neo-Pentecostalism. I was talking a while ago to a person who had been brought up from childhood on in the Reformed faith, was thoroughly acquainted with the Heidelberg Catechism, and knew the doctrine of sanctification as taught in Scripture and defined in the Reformed creeds. But this person had drifted into Pentecostalism and he talked at great length about the renewal in life which the second baptism of the Spirit brought about. It soon became evident that this person was, at bottom, a perfectionist, and believed that the Christian could attain a sinless life in this world. When confronted with the statements in the Heidelberg Catechism which I quoted above, this person simply responded, “I do not believe those statements.” It was as simple as that. 

But this is really the solution of all Arminianism and Pelagianism. You will notice that Arminianism always really heads in the direction of some kind of perfectionism. That is why Pentecostals can also be perfectionists, for Pentecostalism is Arminian. And the real reason why Arminianism is perfectionistic is because Arminianism can never take sin seriously. And it cannot take sin seriously because, to a greater or lesser degree, it denies that sin is a matter of the corruption of the nature. And, denying that sin is a matter of the nature, it ascribes sin only to the act. If sin is only in the act, attaining perfection is always a distinct possibility. If sin is in the nature, perfection is an unattainable goal on this side of the grave. 

So you had better be sure you never take this direction. 

But there is also always the possibility that one takes the opposite position. That is, whether consciously or unconsciously, one does not take the admonitions of Scripture seriously. Perhaps a minister may do this. He does not mean to do this, of course. But, aware of the problem, and knowing that the congregation is never going to be able to attain to the goal set before it in the Scriptures, he unconsciously leaves the impression that he does not really mean what he says, and that the Scriptures do not really mean what they say when we are summoned to a holy life. Or, if the minister takes the matter seriously enough, the congregation reacts in that way. The members, thinking to themselves as they listen to the sermon that they can never attain to such a goal, brush off the seriousness of the calling, and excuse their failure to heed the admonition on the grounds that the attainment of it is impossible. This latter is really a kind of antinomianism, and it is the kind of reaction to the preaching against which the minister must warn strenuously. 

But now to the question itself. Why does Scripture callGod’s people to perfection? And why does Scripture do this when the same Scripture teaches that this is unattainable in this life? 

There is one answer to this question which must be immediately made. This answer is so important that, even if we had no other answer, this one would suffice to put all our questionings away forever. The answer is this. God Himself can require of us nothing else but perfection. It would be completely out of keeping with His holiness and, indeed, a denial of His holiness if He should do less. Whether we are capable of a perfect life or not, God must and does demand absolute perfection. It cannot be any different. The question and answer of our Heidelberg Catechism apply also to the regenerated and saved child of God: “Doth not God then do injustice to man, by requiring from him in his law, that which he cannot perform? Not at all; for God made man capable of performing it; but man, by the instigation of the devil, and his own willful disobedience, deprived himself and all his posterity of those divine gifts.” (Q. & A. 9) And God is completely serious about this. That must never be forgotten, and God’s people must always be reminded of that. 

But there is more. God calls His people.(and now I am talking specifically and concretely about God’s people who are brought by the power of the Holy Spirit to conscious faith) to perfection, in the first place, because it is by means of this call that God’s people are brought to see their own sin. This must always be the effect of such preaching. In the second place, God’s people must see their sin because this is the only way in which they will flee to the cross of Christ. The order of the Heidelberg Catechism (the knowledge of misery, the knowledge of deliverance) applies also here and to all preaching. They must seek their salvation only in the cross. And seeking their salvation in the cross, they will repent of their sin, confess their sin, and, bye faith, turn from their own works to rest solely in the cross of their Lord Jesus Christ. In the third place, the preaching of perfection is so important because by means of it God tells His people what He will make them when they are finally delivered from the last traces of the sins which are so much a part of their life in this valley of tears. And when God shows them the glorious destination which is the goal of their salvation in Christ, God inspires in them a longing for that day “when they shall stand without spot or wrinkle in the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” And this longing is, of course, closely connected with their sorrow for sin.

In this connection, I remember a remark which Rev. Hoeksema made from time to time both in his preaching and to us in school: “The most important good work which the child of God performs in this life is sorrow for sin.” 

And finally, this same preaching of perfection ought to (and does) have the effect. on the child of God that he strives ever more earnestly to attain that goal. I suppose, in a way, this is the paradox of the Christian life. I do not imagine that anyone can really know what this is all about unless he himself experiences it. But repentance means fleeing from sin. And the child of God does that. Even though he knows that he shall not be perfect, he strives nevertheless continuously to attain that perfection. He never considers the matter hopeless. He never gives up in despair. Or, if he does, he is quickly brought out of his despair by the stern call of God. And he once again presses forward with new resolve to fight against the sin which is ever present in him. Any different reaction to the preaching is a sin to be repented of. And if there is no repentance, that kind of a reaction is evidence of his total lack of grace. 

And so, I agree with you, with one reservation. The preaching must indeed present “the unattainable ideal.” It must do that. It can, in God’s name, do no less. But this is by no means the kind of preaching which denies that we must strive daily for such perfection. In fact, only the preaching of absolute perfection, even as an unattainable ideal, will be the preaching which, in the final analysis, results in a daily striving against sin. 

There are some other things which we ought yet to discuss in this connection. But they can (and must) wait until next time.

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko