(Note: This is the second installment of a series of articles on the above subject. These articles are translations of a series which was written in the Holland language by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema thirty-seven years ago.)
In this way, first, of all, degeneration and retrogression take place in the living confession of the Churches. We do not refer now to the confession as it is officially fixed in certain formulas and as it is adopted by the Churches in common, as it constitutes the basis for denominational ties and fellowship,—the confession as it is printed in the back of our Psalter. No, this is not the first to receive attention. In a certain sense the corruption of this confession is last in order. A church does not easily arrive at the point of changing and weakening its official confession. But we have in mind the living confession of the Church of Christ in the world, and that too, in word and in walk. The Church of Christ must be a confessing church. That is its calling. To confess the name of the Lord before men is its task. Unto that end the Church is in the world. And the Church must do this, not first of all by drawing up a set of articles in which it expresses the content of its faith, but in the living word and in a godly walk: in a walk in the world, but not of the world; in the proclaiming of the virtues of Him Who has called us out of the darkness into His marvelous light, and in the condemnation of the world which lies in darkness. And the Church is called to do this always and everywhere, in the midst of the church and in the midst of the world, in the home and in society, in the factory and in t-he office, and in the mutual life of the communion of the brethren. This is the Church’s confession, which it is called to seal with its life.
It is at the point of this living confession that deformation first comes, to manifestation. There is an inner weakening of life. The carnal element in the Church of Christ begins to rule. The others begin to weaken and to become lethargic, to fall asleep; they no longer watch and pray; they do not witness and protest. The Church has lost its first love. No longer is there a confession before the world, either-by word of mouth or in walk. As a rule, such a lethargy and falling asleep does not begin with the multitude, but with the leaders. As long as the leaders remain alert and receive the grace of the Spirit to lift themselves above such a general spirit of indifference and to protest against it resolutely, God’s people do not easily fall asleep. But the leaders set the place. They themselves fall asleep. No longer are they watchmen upon the walls of Zion; they give themselves over to a life of the flesh. How they can enjoy the highest salary, the best place, the least work, the most pleasure in the world,—these are the matters which captivate their heart and which occupy them in their mutual discussions. Their personal spiritual life is impoverished, prayer dies off, their testimony becomes mute, in their walk they are attracted by the vainglory of life. And: “As the priest, so the people” is a proverb which is soon confirmed by reality. This evil takes hold all around them. It reveals itself at every level. In the mutual life of the Church personal testimony is no longer heard: The things of God’s kingdom no longer attract. The people come together to enjoy ordinary worldly sociability, things of “the most common grace”; they talk about the things of the world, make themselves guilty of backbiting and slander, play cards or dance to pass the time away. Once a Sunday they still go to church if the weather is not too unfavorable, but usually it is either too cold or too hot to attend twice; and they would prefer to go visiting or riding instead of attending church. Soon this spirit of degeneration reveals itself everywhere. It influences the home; it reveals itself in the instruction in the Christian grade school and in the secondary schools; and it comes to manifestation in the social life of the Christian. One’s entire outlook becomes broader; cooperation becomes possible in everything; and Christ and Belial go hand in hand! The light has been put under a bushel, and the salt has lost its savor!
The living confession of the Church of Christ has been silenced!
Let synods be convened under such conditions, and let these broader gatherings issue precept upon precept and line upon line. It is absolutely fruitless. You cannot purify polluted water from a pump by painting the pump handle!
Now it surely lies in the nature of the case that the dying of this living testimony affects the life of the Church in its institutional manifestation and official calling, in its official confession, in its worship, its preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, in its discipline and church government.
With the officebearers matters become increasingly poor. For even as they as leaders, who neglected their calling and themselves fell asleep, often are the first cause of apostasy and backsliding, so they themselves come forth again out of the life of the church. In that church which fell away, whose confession became silent, which left its first love, they are brought up,—instructed in its homes, in its catechism classes, in its schools; the spirit of that church they drink in; and before long you get officebearers who are strangers to the real life of the Church and who are even no longer acquainted with the tradition of that life.
Thus a condition is gradually created in which the Church can also corrupt its own confession, permit church discipline to be come lax, allow church government to take a hierarchical direction, and change the worship into mere formality.
As far as the established confession of the churches is concerned, usually this corruption begins with a dry and dead intellectualism. The confessions are still known. People study them. They are discussed in societies and in personal conversations. Men speak in imposing language of principles and of maintaining the confession, and then of conquering all spheres of life for Christ. But it is all dead and lifeless, a hollow cry, which also finds no longer any confirmation in practical life. The heart is not in it, and men no longer experience the spiritual power of the confession. However, such a situation cannot long continue, as lies in the nature of the case. This reasoning about the confession soon comes to an end. The confession is no longer investigated: men find such things too dull and dry, just as in reality it also had been. A further stage of decline is characterized by a contempt, the contempt of ignorance, with respect to the confession of the Churches. Men are not even able to name the Three Forms of Unity, much less tell you their contents. Whoever would speak yet of the Reformed truth either finds no audience or he is greeted with a sympathetic smile as one who is behind the times. A generation arises which, as I once put it in a sermon in my former congregation, would fail in a kindergarten-examination in the Reformed truth, but which nevertheless, with all its ignorance, begins to dominate in the Church.
But even this is not the end. The last stage in this development is characterized by a deep-seated hatred against everything which is specifically Reformed and by sharp and bitter opposition. And those who in the final analysis still want to maintain the confession of the Churches and to hold fast to it are treated with contempt or are cast out.
Nor is it different with respect to the administration of the Word and the sacraments. The ministers also come forth out of the Church. Their preaching first becomes lifeless and mechanical. It is no longer a living witness and confession, a matter of the heart. There is no longer any power in the preaching. Yes, men continue to keep themselves within the confines of the confession and of tradition. One cannot exactly say that there is something definitely wrong and heretical proclaimed from the pulpit. But there is no life in it. The heart is out of it. The preacher no longer finds his soul’s delight in the living proclamation of the Word of God. The situation, however, cannot remain thus. For who would be able, week after week, year in and year out, to speak of things in which his own heart does not live? They begin to cast about for something else. Gradually the Word of God must make room for the vain philosophy of the world. Yes, for a kind of motto a text is selected, but only never to be mentioned again in the course of the sermon. They speak about this and that and everything, except about the living and powerful Word of the Lord our God which abides forever. And so it happens that the Lord comes into that sleeping congregation unnoticed, as a thief in the night, removes the light from the candlestick, and goes on His way, without the congregation even noticing that a judgment of God has been executed upon it! The key power, either of the preaching of the Word or of Christian discipline, is no longer employed; the sacraments are desecrated; and the Church is delivered over to the heathen.
It need not surprise us that such a Church, dead and lifeless and ignorant, also becomes ripe for hierarchy in its government. The multitude which knows not the law is no longer articulate, no longer concerns itself with the things pertaining to the life of the church, and is in fact, accursed. When the synod has spoken, then this is quite acceptable to them, and they gladly submit themselves to its decisions, even though they have not the faintest idea of what has been decided. Papa dixit, the pope has spoken: and that is the end of all contradiction. And the officebearers, who may not be anything else than disciples of Christ, gladly make use of the opportunity to be lords rather than servants, to pluck instead of to feed, to shear the sheep instead of tending the flock. The congregation has despised the truth, has rejected its living confession, has learned to love the world, has cast away its spiritual nobility, and has become the prey of wolves!
And so it happens that this spirit of laxity and apostasy, this process of deformation, finally is also seen in the public worship service. Where the essence is lacking, there the emphasis must be laid more and more upon outward form. Where the heart no longer beats in the worship service, there the corpse must be made attractive with cosmetics and flowers. Men seek after more liturgical form, more beautiful music, more artistically gratifying singing. They demand shorter and shorter sermons, in many churches no longer than ten or fifteen minutes’ duration. They introduce dead formulas of absolution instead of the living preaching of God’s Word. Presently they will become ripe again for the confessional and for image-worship and for the accursed idolatry of the popish mass!
The ultimate result is that you have world-conformity instead of the living confession of God’s people; freedom of doctrine and vain philosophy instead of the powerful and pure proclamation of the Word of God; hierarchical domineering instead of the freedom in which the congregation must stand; the dead corpse of form-worship instead of the pulsating heart of the living fellowship of God with His people in the midst of the congregation. The true church becomes a sham church; the sham church becomes false church; the false church prepares the way for the Antichrist. The process of deformation has reached its climax.
And because the principles, the seeds, of this process of deformation are always present and operating in the Church of the Lord on earth, because no church is ever free of this leaven, therefore there is constant need of an on-going reformation of the Churches.