The undersigned was requested to write an anniversary article in connection with his rubric: The History of Doctrine. We comply gladly.
I repeat: we comply gladly. Why? There is a reason why we comply gladly to contribute an article to this anniversary of fifty years of our existence as Protestant Reformed Churches. There is something about this celebration that should thrill our people, thrill all those who love the truths of God’s infallible Word and Scripture. What is this cause for our joy and happiness?
Anniversaries are very serious events. We celebrate the twenty-fifth, fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of our married lives. The world, too, recognizes these milestones in their married lives, and celebrates them. After all, we repeat, anniversaries are serious. They leave an impression which no man can escape. They remind us of the truth that time marches on, irresistibly and inexorably. What shall we say about this inexorable marching of time? How shall we react? We must say something. And we do! However, the reaction to this inescapable marching of time is quite different in the midst of the world than as occurring among the people of God. Worldly anniversaries are marked by hilarity on the one hand, but also by a feeling of depression and gloom on the other hand. The child of the world views this event superficially, hilariously, seeks to cover up, refuses to look at the reality of life squarely in the face, and he cannot escape a feeling of gloom and despair, realizing that the life he loves is transitory, fleeting, and that he is being carried irresistibly and inexorably to his eternal destiny. How different are these anniversary celebrations among the people of God! They review the past. They know that they must give an account of all things done in the body, whether good or bad. They do not attempt to cover up. They review the past in the light of God’s Word. And they come to a two-fold conclusion: on the one hand, they have forfeited all the mercies of the Lord, have corrupted their way before the face of God Who is unchangeably good and, righteous and just, and, on the other land, the Lord remained faithful and His mercies never failed them. And they also look toward the future, confidently, realizing that, although their sinning will continue, the mercies of the Lord and His goodness will lead them through the remaining years of their pilgrimage.
Church anniversaries are serious, too. Upon these occasions we look back and reflect. We should do this. As churches we will soon celebrate our fiftieth anniversary. What shall we say?
Doctrine has a history. Of course! We speak of the history of doctrine. And the history of doctrine teaches us particularly two things. In the first place, this history teaches us that the Lord has always preserved His truth throughout the ages. This applies also to the church of the Lord. The Lord has always preserved a remnant. There has always been our Father’s “little flock” throughout the history of the world. The gates of hell may rage and rave but they can never overwhelm the church of God. They will never prevail. And what is true of this remnant also applies to the truth. This lies in the nature of the case. The two are inseparable: God’s remnant according to election and the truth of the infallible Word of God. This truth of the Divine Scriptures has always been preserved. Fundamentally, this truth can be expressed in three words: GOD IS GOD. These three words surely establish the sovereignty of the living God. Because God is God He is wholly sovereign. Because God is God He alone determines all things, including the eternal destiny of every moral-rational creature, expressed in the terms election and reprobation. However, the truth that God is God also establishes and confirms the truth of man’s responsibility. Because God is God therefore He must be served. No man has any license to sin. Because God is God He demands of every man to love Him with his entire being. The Lord does not ask the sinner to repent and turn from his evil way; He commands him to do so. That is His Divine prerogative. Because He is God! If we proceed from the Scriptural truth that God is God we will surely be kept from error. And the Lord has preserved His truth throughout the ages. During the early centuries of the New Dispensation the devil aimed his attack upon the truth of the eternal Godhead of the Son. This truth was attacked by Arms. The risen Lord, however, had given His church the assurance that He would return to it and lead it by His Spirit into all the truth. And the Lord led His church to declare it to be the truth of the Word of God that Jesus, besides being true and very man, is also the eternal and natural Son of God. It was Pelagius who denied the Scriptural truth of man’s utter depravity. But the Lord raised up Augustine to champion this truth of the Word of God, and the church of God was again led to set forth and establish this truth of the Word of God. In the early years of the seventeenth century it was Arminius who denied the sovereignty of God and all related truths, such as the atonement of Christ, the depravity of the sinner, the irresistible character of God’s grace and the perseverance of the saints. But again the church was led into all the truth, and that church defended and set forth these cardinal truths and principles of the infallible Scriptures.
However, the history of doctrine also teaches us something else: And this, too, is important. I refer to the phenomenon, so prevalent throughout the ages, that the truth of the Word of God has been under constant attack, that departures from the truth have always occurred and that the church has never enjoyed purity of doctrine for too long a time. These “ups and downs” characterized the church of God already in the Old Dispensation. The book of Judges speaks vividly of this phenomenon. And how true this is during the New Dispensation! During the age of the apostles, the church of God was preserved by God through these apostles as they were led infallibly by the Spirit of God into the mysteries of the truths of God’s Word. Soon after their death the enemies of the truth became bolder in their attacks upon the Divine Scriptures. In the so-called “Heroic Age,” during the second and third centuries, when the faithful people of God were subjected to fierce persecutions, the church of God was called upon to preserve what they had. When these persecutions ceased and the church was given legal recognition, the forces of darkness arose in their assaults upon the Word of God. And although it is true that the risen Lord always led His church into all the truth, the purity of doctrine was never enjoyed for too long a period of time. Pelagianism, condemned at the Synod of Ephesus in 431, was succeeded by Semi-Pelagianism. It is claimed that this Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Synod of Orange in 529. Concerning this synod we may remark that it is known especially because of its consistent condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism. Many historians leave the impression that this synod represents a last victory for the Augustinian conception, of predestination and sovereign grace. This, however, as the late Rev. H. Hoeksema observes, is not the case. The synod left much rather the impression that it was afraid of the strict Augustinian principles. On the one hand, the synod maintained the total incapability of man to do any good, and this over against the Semi-Pelagians. On the other hand, however, it denied the infallible and irresistible operation of sovereign grace. And one finds nothing in the decisions of this synod concerning sovereign election and reprobation. And, as far as the Arminian controversy of 1618-1619 is concerned, we know, to be sure, that the heresy of Arminianism was condemned at the Synod of Dordt. But we also know that Arminianism remained very much alive. In 1924 the Christian Reformed Church formulated the Three Points of 1924. In these points the Arminian and Pelagian heresies of God’s universal love as expressed in the general free offer of the gospel and the denial of man’s total and utter depravity were officially set forth. And we know that these sentiments had already been proclaimed in those churches before 1924. Our existence as Protestant Reformed Churches is due to the fact that the Christian Reformed Church would not tolerate us because of our rejection of those points of 1924.
And now, what shall we say? Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our churches, reflecting upon the past, we may certainly declare, in all humility, that the Lord has preserved us steadfast in the truth. This can hardly be said of our mother church who cast us out of her fellowship in 1924-1925. The Three Points of 1924 have certainly left their mark. The warnings which were issued by our leaders at that time and in connection with these points of heresy, which warnings went unheeded, have surely been fulfilled. That church’s misery of the present day can never be divorced from what happened in 1924. Today, in these churches, people are talking openly of secession. Who does not know of the evils that have come upon these churches? Need we call attention to them at this time, as including universal atonement, the denial of the historicity of Gen. 1-3, etc.?
Our churches have remained faithful to the truths of the Word of God. Indeed, we do not say this boastingly. This is simply a fact. We have not deviated an iota from the position we took in 1924. Our worship services, too, continue as then. This, to remain faithful to the Word of God, is hardly characteristic of a sect. A heretical group, once departing from the truth of the Word of God, continues to drift away from the Divine Scriptures. Such a group never returns. Individual sinners repent, but churches never repent. Our mother church has departed from the truth and her departure from the Word of God has continued unabated through these last fifty years. Shall we, because of our faithfulness to the Word of God, boast of what we have done? Shall we glory in ourselves? Shall we look in pride upon our accomplishments? Indeed, not! Why not? Because our preservation in the truth was never of ourselves. That we preserved in the Scriptures was because we were preserved. And we were preserved by God and His grace.
So, as we celebrate our anniversary let us say: Ebenezer — ” Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” It was all of Him. And may we resolve to continue in this safekeeping of the Lord, clinging to His Word through prayer. May we, with the children whom God has given us, continue in the Scriptures, walk in them which alone are a light upon our path and a lamp before our feet. And may we ever hold fast to the promises of god which in Christ Jesus are Yea and Amen.