For various reasons which will become clear, I trust, as we proceed, I am intending to write an occasional editorial on the subject which heads this article. As churches, we must be specific. We must not be generally Christian. We must not be known or try to be known merely as “conservative,” nor even as “conservatively” Reformed. But we must be clearly, unmistakably, specifically Protestant Reformed. We have a distinctively Protestant Reformed heritage. By that heritage we have always been known over the years. And by that heritage we must continue to be known.
This implies necessarily that this distinctively Protestant Reformed heritage must be preserved. And it implies that this heritage must be passed on in our generations. Moreover, the passing on of this heritage in our churches is primarily—though not exclusively—the responsibility of the office of the minister, the task of the pulpit and of the catechism class. It is also the calling of homes and parents. It is also the responsibility of various other agencies and functions in the circle of our churches. But the first responsibility lies with our pulpits and with those who are charged with the work of the ministry and the oversight of that work.
About this and about the dangers of being and becoming less than specific, as well as about what it means to be specific—and I shall be concrete in this regard—I intend to write.
While I was doing some research in connection with these planned editorials, I came across a radio sermon by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema which was delivered in 1945. It was part of a series on the general subject of The Church. Its title is “The Reformation Of The Church.” When I perused it once again, I came to the conclusion that this radio sermon not only was in several aspects in line with what I intended to write, but that it could also serve as a fitting introduction to this series of editorials and furnish helpful background. I am therefore reprinting this radio message which was originally made available in mimeo form.
THE REFORMATION OF THE CHURCH
It is the solemn obligation of the believer, we said (in a previous message, HCH), to seek and join himself to the true church, the purest manifestation of the body of Christ on earth, distinguished by purity in preaching, by proper administration of the holy sacraments, and by faithful exercise of Christian discipline. To this we now add that, when the true believer has found this church and lives in her fellowship, it is also his sacred calling as well as his earnest desire to seek the good, the true, spiritual well-being of that church. And to this calling belongs the obligation of constant vigilance lest the church become deformed and corrupt, and to work for the continued reformation of the church.
Always the church in the world faces the danger of deformation. Within and without, forces are at work constantly that tend to lead her astray, to persuade her to apostatize from the truth of the Word of God, to tempt her to depart from the way of the precepts of her Lord in walk and conversation, to profane the holy sacraments, and to grow lax in the exercise of Christian discipline. The reasons for this are evident. The church in the world is never perfect. Always there is the carnal seed, those that are in the church but not of her, that are outwardly in her fellowship, but are devoid of her spiritual life. This is the plain teaching of Scripture; and it is corroborated by experience and by the history of the church of all ages.
A great multitude it was that followed Moses out of Egypt. And concerning them the apostle Paul writes: “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of the spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (I Cor. 10:1-5). And the epistle to the Hebrews, referring to this same fact in the language of Psalm 95, reminds us of the day of temptation in the wilderness, when these same fathers tempted God, until He swore in His great wrath that they should not enter into His rest. And they did not enter because of unbelief (Heb. 3:7 ff.) And the epistle to the Romans in its ninth chapter postulates the principle that God’s sovereign election and reprobation cut right through the church in the world, so that it is always true that not all are Israel that are of Israel. The Lord Jesus compares the gathering of the church in the world to a field into which the good seed is sown, but also the tares, and, the two shall not be separated until the end of the world, when “the Son of man shall send forth His holy angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:41, 42). And again, He likens this gathering to “a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, and cast the bad away.”
The carnal element, therefore, is always in the church on earth. It arises from within; for all the children of believers are not children of the promise. And it joins itself frequently to the church from without. Never can they be completely eliminated. A pure church of believers only we must never expect in the world.
To this must be added, first of all, that believers themselves are not perfect. They have a principle of the new life in Christ, a beginning of the new obedience. And according to that regenerated life they love the Word of God and are desirous to walk according to the will of God in the world. But their old nature remains with them as long as they are in the body of this death. The operations of sin continue in them. And, secondly, the church is in the world, with its false philosophy, its opposition to the truth of the gospel, its lust of the flesh, and lust of the eyes, and pride of life, its temptations and persecutions.
Hence, it may truly be said that from a natural viewpoint, the church occupies a precarious position. The flesh within her is opposed to the truth of the Word of God, and hates the way of God’s precepts. It loves the lie, and seeks to satisfy its carnal lusts. And in this carnal element within the church the world without with its philosophy and vain deceit, finds a powerful ally. Because of the presence and operation of these forces of evil the church is in constant danger of apostasy from the truth and of amalgamation with the world. The many places of formal worship in our land, from whose pulpits once the clear sound of the pure Word of God was heard, but in which one now seeks in vain the preaching of the gospel, are tangible proof of this truth. Always the church is in sore need of hearing the admonition of the Scriptures: “Beware, lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). And again, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? . . .Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you” (II Cor. 6:14-17).
The process by which a church yields to these forces of corruption, so that she finally becomes a prey to them, is not difficult to describe. There is, first of all, the gradual corruption of its doctrine. This doctrinal decline usually begins within the church itself. The preaching of the Word loses its distinctive note. It becomes general and vague. No longer does it emphasize sound doctrine. A superficial message, delivered in fifteen or twenty minutes, permeated by all kinds of stories, must suffice. There is no longer heard the clear call to live in sanctification and separation from the world. Light and darkness are mingled into a gray and heavy mist, in which no one can distinguish the one from the other. Instruction of children and of the youth of the church is neglected. Soon an appalling ignorance in regard to the most fundamental truths of the Christian faith is the result. Thus the church becomes an easy prey to every wind of doctrine, and to the ungodly influence of the philosophy of the world. And especially in our modern day these influences are many and manifold, and are exerted upon us through many means and avenues: the spoken word of the false teacher, the radio (and television, HCH), and the printed page.
Concomitant with this corruption in. doctrine is a definite degradation of the very standards of life of such a church. Discipline is, of course, no longer exercised. Anyone is welcome to join, regardless of his confession and walk. The sabbath is desecrated. The church-pews become empty. Soon it is compelled to close its doors in the evening for lack of an audience. Its members seek enjoyment elsewhere. They become friends of the world. They sing and dance with the world; they attend theaters and movies with the world; they have their card parties and drinking parties with the world; they join the society of this world; they speak as and look like the children of the world. Christ and the devil seem to have joined hands; righteousness and unrighteousness have become an indistinguishable corruption that is still called religion. The church has become a silly company of adulterers, and the Lord spews her out of His mouth.
It is difficult to determine just which of these two is first, decline in doctrine or spiritual degeneracy, and which must be regarded as the cause of the other. Certain it is that they go together. For a time it may seem possible to maintain a certain dead orthodoxy, a soundness of doctrine in the face of a growing laxity in regard to the life of sanctification; but such a situation cannot continue for any length of time. And, on the other hand, for a while it may appear as if a church can maintain a certain standard of Christian living without the pure preaching of the Word and instruction in sound doctrine, but also this soon proves to be impossible. There is, therefore, a reciprocal relationship between the two. On the one hand, ignorance in regard to the truth and laxity in the preaching of the Word are conducive to degradation in respect to life and walk. But on the other hand, where discipline is not exercised, and the life and walk of the church members becomes carnal and worldly, the carnal element of the church will soon clamor for a preaching that justifies their sinful walk, choose for themselves teachers after their own carnal desire, and silence the voice of the Word of God.
Because of these forces of evil within and without, and because of this danger that the church becomes corrupt and moves in the direction of the false church, she is in need of continued reformation.
Just as the individual believer is in need of constant conversion, so the church, if she is to remain true, must pass through a continuous process of reformation. And what is true of the conversion of the individual Christian, that it consists of a putting off of the old, and a putting on of the new man, is applicable to the church: she must repent, hate sin and flee from it, but also positively grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherever a church reveals even the first tendency to depart from the truth and yield to the influence of false doctrine, or to lose her first love and become lax in Christian living, she must repent and return to the way of truth and righteousness. But she must also positively increase in the knowledge of the truth, become stronger in the faith, more firmly rooted in Christ, and abound in love and spiritual discernment, in order that she may approve that which is excellent, and be filled with fruits of righteousness. Moreover, she must also constantly adjust her position over against and in the midst of a changing world. Fundamentally, the world, in its evil sense, and the position of the church over against it, are always the same: the church is in the world, but not of the world. Yet, our fathers of the sixteenth century did not face the same problems the church of today confronts. Then life was comparatively simple, now it is complicated. Then there were but few different churches, now winds of doctrine blow from all directions, and there is no end of heresies and sects. Then the church could live in relative isolation from the world; now, through modern inventions of steam and electricity, auto and airplane, telegraph and telephone and radio, the world is literally on top of her. (And how things have changed even since this was written less than 40 years ago! HCH) The problems of worldlimindedness, of dancing and theater attendance, of sabbath desecration, of divorce, unionism, and the like, were virtually unknown, in their present form at least; today they are acute. And with respect to that changing and developing form of the world, the church must constantly give herself account of her calling, and determine her position, that is, understand the will of her Lord, and keep it. She needs continuous reformation in order to remain steadfast, unmovable, and abound in the work of the Lord.
Hence, the church has the sacred obligation to watch, and to labor with a view to this continued reformation.
Everywhere this calling is emphasized in Scripture. She must grow in the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, that her members be no longer children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:13, 14). She must repent and do the former works, Revelation 2:5; be faithful unto death, Revelation 2:10; put away false prophets and their doctrine, Revelation 2:15, 16; and all fornicators, Revelation 2:20ff.; hold fast that which she has, Revelation 2:25; be watchful, and strengthen that which is ready to die,Revelation 3:2. And if she fails to hear the Word of her Lord, He will reject her and spew her out of His mouth. This, to be sure, is first of all the calling of the institute of the church, of her ministry and overseers, but not so that the individual members have no calling and responsibility at all in this respect. They, too, must hear the Word of their Lord, watch against intrusion of false teachers and evil men, and raise their voice in protest against the church institute, wherever and whenever she departs from the truth and becomes unfaithful and corrupt in walk and conversation. Either in cooperation with the official institute, or in protest against her, every believer has the calling to labor for the constant reformation of the church.
But what to do, if in the church of which you are member the carnal element begins to dominate? What if the institute of the church itself becomes corrupt, the Word of God is adulterated, the sacraments are profaned, false teachers and their winds of doctrine are tolerated and welcomed, and Christian discipline is no longer exercised? What if the officebearers will no longer be servants of Christ, but lord it over the flock? What if they turn a deaf ear to all your protests against their evil way? And what if they grow wanton, demand that you subscribe to their false doctrine, or corruption in life, or both; and if you will not be silent, they employ their official power to persecute you, and cast you out? In that situation, the church of which you are a member reveals the marks of the false church; and the only way in which you can continue to work for the reformation of the church is by separating yourself from the particular institute, and continuing the true church, with its pure preaching of the Word of God, its proper administration of the sacraments, and its exercise of Christian discipline, in a new organization.
Such specific reformations, in the form of secession and separation from a certain instituted church, have repeatedly occurred in the history of the church of the new dispensation; and they still take place: And they are unavoidable, unless the church takes her task of continued reformation very seriously. Needless to say, one dare not take this final step lightly. For minor reasons or personal prejudices no one may apply this measure. On the other hand, if one stands before the alternative of denying the Word of God or leaving a certain institute, if it becomes a question of defending and remaining in a certain institute on earth or preserving the true church, the purest manifestation of the body of Christ on earth, no true believer may hesitate to take that final step. A sad spectacle it is, indeed, to behold the visible church in the world split up and divided into many different parts and sects opposing one another. But woe unto those corrupters of the truth and of the life of the church who are the cause of this offense!
When the church in the world reverts to the type of that of Laodicea, the Lord Christ Himself is expelled from its fellowship. He stands outside, calling to the faithful to open the door, and promising them that He will recognize them as the true church if they come out to Him. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 3:20, 22).