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Prof. Barrett Gritters, professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Hudsonville PRC

 

How many? How many covenant sons have turned away from the church and now wander in the misery of unbelief? How many daughters of Zion have rejected the faith of their father and mother and instead run in the cold and cruel world of darkness?

They were taught the truth as it is in Jesus, shown the cross where is forgiveness and hope, and by word and example pointed in the way of righteousness. But at some point, known only to God, their heart turned away from their parents, their church, perhaps even their friends. Then came the sad but not unfamiliar announcement in the Sunday morning bulletin: “Af­ter much labor and with great sorrow, the elders have granted the request of (covenant child’s name) to have their certificate of dismissal sent to their home.” And with those ominous words, the congregation is alerted to the son or daughter who is now a prodigal.

And then does the church forget them?

If you have access to your church’s membership directory of ten or 15 years ago, it would be a profit­able exercise prayerfully and humbly to reflect on the church’s children whose names are not on today’s rolls. Or, without a directory, look around the sanctuary on a Sunday and think about the wayward son or daugh­ter. She sat next to you in catechism. He participated in youth Bible study. They went to the young people’s conventions with you. And now, gone.

Certainly, the absence of any name does not mean they all are in unbelief. But many are. Bitter about something, disenchanted with the church, or just saw the world and its allure, and left.

Are most of them forgotten?

Of course, not by their parents. Heartbroken father and mother cannot forget. Probably a day does not go by in which something will remind them of their little girl, now grown, who used to sit on their lap singing Zion’s songs; or the boy, now an adult, who for 18 years put his feet under their dinner table. Father or mother will not forget. And if the grief of a child lost in death is great, the loss to unbelief is greater—they worry for their souls. No, the parents do not forget.

But does the church? Their family of faith? The household of God, where care and concern for all the brothers and sisters ought to reflect—even more clear­ly—the care that earthly families have for their ‘own’? Has the church forgotten her “wandering sons”?

Included in our hearts’ concern are not only the way­ward who leave in their youth, but all the others: hus­bands who forsake their wives and wives their husbands; parents who abandon their children; families whose commitment to Sunday sports or work or a child’s wick­ed marriage led them to a church which condones their sin. These, too, were part of our church family.

The instructive (but little known) forms

In the back of many Reformed churches’ songbook are the church’s creeds, Church Order, and liturgy. In the Protestant Reformed Churches’ Psalter, two liturgical forms are familiar because we read them frequently: the Forms for Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But two liturgical forms are almost never read and are therefore almost completely unknown: the “Form of Excommunication” and the “Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons.”1

The doctrine—I use the word doctrine deliberate­ly—of these forms ought to be as familiar to us as the doctrine of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The fathers at Dordt judged these forms to be creedal. Some early synods even instructed the churches to have the mem­bers memorize these liturgical forms. They wanted the people of God not only to know what to believe, but also how to live. And the forms for excommunicating and re­admitting teach how to live towards the wayward and impenitent. The doctrine of sanctification—how to live in holiness—includes how to live towards the church’s wayward sons and daughters. This is biblical doctrine, as real as the doctrine of marriage or of Christ’s divinity.

The relation between these two forms and the Church Order ought to be noted. The Church Order, one of our ‘minor creeds,’ requires the use of the forms. When a “rotten and as yet incurable member” must be cut off, Article 76 requires the form “adopted for that purpose, according to the Word of God.” When the sinner re­pents and may be readmitted, Article 78 requires “the form for that purpose,” which, implied, is also “accord­ing to the Word of God.” The forms are an important part of the church’s proper government, based on the Word of God.

They are very instructive.

They answer, for example, the hard question of how to behave toward the impenitent; and we are warned not to have communication that is “too familiar,” but at the same time not to shun them. We learn that excommunication is not only cutting off from the church, but from Christ Himself and all His benefits. We learn the three purposes of discipline—that the sinner may be ashamed, that the whole church be not endangered by his presence, and that God’s name be not blasphemed. And much more.

Early arriving church members who like to read before the service begins would do well to read these forms. Others will find time to read them, perhaps on Sunday afternoon.

How to behave toward the wayward sons and daughters

The forms’ instructions most appropriate for our purposes here are the actions we are called to take toward the excommunicated. Note well: after excommunication.

Specifically, the church is admonished to three activi­ties: to continue to pray for the wayward, to continue to admonish them, and to continue to be good examples for them.

How wonderful if the church remembers this. If she does, she will not forget her wayward children.

In the service when the wayward are formally cut off and the Form of Excommunication is read, it concludes with a prayer that is stunning for its wisdom, humility, and wonderful petitions. “We therefore humbly beseech Thee, to kindle in our hearts a pious zeal, that we may labor, with good Christian admonitions and examples, to bring again this excommunicated person on the right way, together with all those, who, through unbelief or dissoluteness of life, go astray.” That petition alone is worth memorizing. Does the church really mean this? Does she believe this is a proper attitude and activity to­wards those who have been cut off, or leave in impen­itence? It is our creed! “O God! Kindle in our hearts a zeal to keep on laboring with admonitions and examples to bring back this one, and other wayward ones!”

Then, if the wayward repents (God be praised!) the Form of Readmitting is read. And it begins with an assertion that no church member can make in good conscience unless he has been praying the prayer in the Form of Excommunication. The elders announce to the congregation: “We cannot conceal from you now that he [the impenitent], by the above-mentioned rem­edy [excommunication] as also by the means of good admonitions and your Christian prayers, is come so far that he is ashamed of his sins, praying us to be readmit­ted….” That is, with this form we confess that God has used our continued admonitions and prayers to bring the impenitent to sorrow. But have we been doing that? It is to my shame that I have not sufficiently learned the doctrine in these creeds.

There are very few who ever are excommunicated. In 40 years of ministry, I have never read the form. Some churches have—in my home congregation, twice in the past few years—but those times are rare. Usually the impenitent member quickly leaves, breaking his confes­sion of faith vow to submit to church discipline. And sometimes consistories do not inform the congregation of all their toil to correct the member who is living in sin but now escapes the complete exercise of discipline. This is regrettable because the consistory does not want to miss the opportunity to remind her members to pray for and admonish these wayward members, too. We hope for their repentance and reconciliation as much as those finally excommunicated with the form.

The better way for us

There are ways that we can remedy this weakness. Here are a few:

First, as a preacher, I am committed to including the wayward children on my prayer list.

O God of mercy, we commit to Thee the sons and daughters of the congregation who have strayed. Some, recently. Others, many years ago. Father, many are our own flesh and blood, family members. Their walking in sin grieves us. That they are no longer with us in worship is painful for us. We plead, Father, work repentance in them. Turn their lives upside down, so that they have no peace until they find their rest in Jesus Christ and return to the church. May Satan bring their flesh to ruin, so that their spirits may be saved (I Cor. 5:5). Father, we cannot turn them, but we pray for them, for we love them. They reveal themselves as our enemies; but give us opportunity and the courage to admonish them as we would a brother. When they see us, as they rarely want to do, use our example of love and humility to win them….

Second, as a father, grandfather, or head of my home, I want to use family worship as an occasion to speak to my family about the church’s wandering sons. I want to open up the otherwise painful subject, to instill in my family a humble attitude toward sinners, and re­mind them of the biblical instruction in the forms. (The wording that follows here will be almost directly from the forms):

Children, do you realize that we deserve the grief and sorrow caused us by the cutting off of our former fellow members? In fact, we all would be cut off and banished from God’s fellowship if God would judge us for our great transgressions. Let’s not be proud, but humble and take warning here to fear the Lord and take heed to ourselves; if we think we stand, take heed lest we fall. Remain steadfast, my sons and daughters, to the end. Have you seen how the brother began to fall and, step by step, came to ruin? How subtle is Satan! He even knows how to cut people off from the means of salvation! Avoid the beginnings of evil. Be sober! Watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation. Did you realize that we could, just as well as they, harden our hearts? So work out your own salvation with fear and trembling!

And the sweet fellowship we formerly enjoyed? We may not enjoy that any longer. We must relate to them in such a way that they will be ashamed (II Thess. 3:14). But we may never forget and ignore them, which will be the easy way out. The Devil would love us to forget and ignore them. So, learn to speak carefully with the Word of God to show them their sin and call them to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them that the bosom of the church is always open for those who repent….

Third, as church members, shall we pray for wisdom to speak to the fathers and mothers of the wayward, the men and women who have been abandoned by their spouse, the sons and daughters whose parents forsook them, the brothers and sisters whose family involved themselves in damaging the church.

We love you, even though we do not often know what to say, and in our embarrassment just say nothing. Please forgive us. We pray for your troubled heart. We pray for peace of mind, for submission to God’s painful way for you, for strength to go on without despairing. We want to pray for you. May we know what else we should ask for of our Lord?

Hope for the wayward children

The last and perhaps most important part of the forms’ instruction is in the Form of Readmitting:

Our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 18), having confirmed the sentence of His church in the excommunicating of impenitent sinners, declareth immediately thereupon “that whatsoever his ministers shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”; whereby He giveth to understand that when any person is cut off from His church, he is not deprived of all hope of salvation, but can again be loosed from the bonds of condemnation. Therefore, since God declares in His Word that He takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his wickedness and live, so the church always hopes for the repentance of the backslidden sinner, and keepeth her bosom open to receive the penitent….(emphasis added)

Hope! Always hope!

No one may consider his son an ‘Absalom’ until he dies. A parent might fear this, but he never concludes this until death. Nor may we, the church family from whom he walked away.

So we never stop praying, never stop admonishing, and never stop watching, because we have hope! We do not know what the Lord may do, for He is sovereign; thus we commit the way of the wayward to Him. But our wayward brother or sister, father or mother, hus­band or wife, is never “deprived of all hope of salva­tion.” As the form puts it: the church not only “binds” but also “looses” (Matt. 18). Thus, “our Lord Jesus Christ…gives us to understand that when any person is cut off from the church…he can again be loosed from the bonds of condemnation.”

Pray. Admonish. Hope.

Let us never forget our wayward children.


1 You may find them immediately after the Lord’s Supper Form.