(This editorial is an answer to the letter “Letter about “What Must I Do…?”)
Brother N. Langerak:
I find your letter with its allegations that my editorial of October 1, 2018 was an attempt somehow to resurrect charges of antinomianism against a protestant exonerated by recent synodical decisions more than a little baffling, to put it mildly.
In your opening comments you note that my editorial of October 1 made reference to the “issues being discussed in our churches,” to which phrasing you take exception (“an affront”) because such, in your estimation, minimized the weight of the charges made and the decisions that resulted. Be informed, I used the word “discussion” purposely. The editorial was not written with a view to militating against recent synodical decisions (in some surreptitious way) with its exoneration of a protestant’s name, but in view of the discussion amongst our membership to which the recent controversy about the relations between faith and good works and then to the preaching has given rise. The article minimizes neither the controversy nor the objectionable statements protestants appealed. Neither does the article in any way dissent from the recent synodical decisions. Nor does it encourage readers to do so.
But, who can deny that the recent controversy with its publicly published decisions by our broader assemblies over the past few years has been the occasion for much discussion amongst our membership? And the discussion continues. Not now over synod’s lifting the charge of antinomianism from the appellant, but over what is the proper understanding of the relation between faith and good works, law and gospel (an issue that goes back to the Reformation, stirring up no little debate back then.) But more particularly, what is the place of good works in the life of the believer, of what benefit are they? Little? Much? And even more specifically, what wording (phrases) may be used in the preaching (and by elders in their work of discipline) to prompt and promote good works (the call to repentance and godliness) in the life of the believer. In fact, what are they called by Scripture to use if the life of godliness (good works) is to come to evidence?
At least that is the discussion that I hear.
These are questions members sincerely interested in what is orthodox according to God’s Word and as spelled out by the confessions have put to me, and more than once. And others have been confronted by them as well, I understand.
So, once again, the article was not a passing of judgment on recent synodical decisions and its judgments. But it was occasioned by the discussion on the various issues raised by the controversy. And one of the large issues was (and continues to be) “What is to be judged as antinomianism?” Our members have a renewed interest in that age-old error.
And, hence the article.
There is value in our members knowing that one of the charges the Arminians brought against the Reformed fathers was that they were, if not “practical antinomians” then “doctrinal antinomians” (now commonly labeled as ‘hyper-Calvinists’). And there is value as well in knowing that the Canons of Dordt were written in part exactly to refute that calumny (false charge). The refutation of this charge loomed large as an occasion for writing the fourth head of doctrine in the manner it was. “No, our emphasis that salvation is all of a grace, that is, irresistible (including the faith that grace brings forth), and therefore is all of God, does not mean that we in the preaching turn the hearers, for all practical purposes, into stocks and blocks (like wooden pawns on a chess board).”
And the Canons explain, best it can, how this process (“mysterious, and ineffable,” III/IV, Art. 12) as worked by the Holy Spirit, takes place.
To these Canons we all subscribe.
That said, let us not imagine that publicly subscribing to the Canons necessarily frees one from being of antinomian persuasion. Anyone who knows anything about Reformed and Presbyterian church history knows that many have loudly subscribed to the Canons and then proceeded to trouble the churches with their antinomian sentiments again and again.
And that brings us to your taking exception to my statement that I fear that there are those in our churches who underestimate the truth of irresistible grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, as if I meant by that this: “In light of the synod’s exonerating the appellant and other protestants, lifting the charge of antinomianism, it is evident that the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms is underestimated in our circles.”
You are mistaken.
Let me be clear. My fear is not occasioned by synod’s recent decisions and lifting charges from an appellant. My assessment and fear is based on forty-plus years as a minister in the PR churches. What I wrote I would have written at some point even if there had been no controversy of the recent vintage in our churches. If one does not think there have been those of an antinomian strain (what the late, highly-esteemed H. Hoeksema called “shades of antinomianism”) in our churches over the years, and that this error remains a real and present danger, well, all I can say is, he does not know our church history and what a number of our congregations have had to deal with over the years. I could direct you to more than one of our emeritus ministers, and they would tell you of having had to deal exactly with that spirit in their congregations (and even on broader assemblies). I chaired a classis in the West in the 1980s that dealt with exactly that error, an attempt to muzzle the preaching so the preacher was not free to explain texts of admonition and warning just as they stood (“Surely, they cannot mean what they appear to say. Surely, to direct commands with their dire warnings at congregations of believers, disturbing their comfort and assurance, implies salvation must be conditional!”). I have faced such a mentality and heard expressions of it here and there as I have been of service in various of our churches.
And so the expression of what I “fear.”
We refer to men full of misguided zeal, intent on protecting the doctrine of salvation all of grace, and therefore all of God (in reaction to Arminiamism or work-righteousness), but doing so by insisting that the preaching emphasize simply what God has done for us (prompting the believer to gratitude) and that the preacher then steer clear of stressing also how the hearer is called to live if he will experientially know the salvation and the approval of his God.
My assessment is this: we are well educated and firmly grounded in our understanding of grace as the favor of God to sinners, contrary to what we deserve. We are not as well educated in understanding grace in its sanctifying power, grace as that by which the elect are transformed by the Holy Spirit and what as a result is to be expected of us as believers. You may disagree, as is your right. But as a life-long member of the PRC with forty years in the ministry, I maintain my assessment. There is development in that area that needs to be done.
Further, your letter states, “No one on either side of this dispute has so much as whispered that the calling to faith and godliness should not be preached.”
But that is not really the issue, is it, whether all agree that preaching should call one to faith and godliness. The issue is, what may be (is allowable) and even must be preached to call faith into active expression and to prompt godliness in the life of the believer? What words and phrases are proper and orthodox, phrases that the Holy Spirit is pleased to use, and others not?
The last synod gave some direction to those questions, designating various objectionable statements and laying down a proper manner in which to use the phrase “in the way of.” The editorial in no way finds fault with their decisions and what they ruled on.
But synod did not and could not list and categorize all acceptable wording. This remains a matter of discussion amongst our members, such as, “In light of our recent decisions, is this way of exhorting members to faith and godliness acceptable and confessional? Is that?” Various sample phrases followed by questions have been put to me.
And one last reflection on your letter—and correction for the sake of various bodies’ good name. Having stated what “the issue in this controversy has never been about,” namely, “whether the believer must do, can do…or does good works,” you set forth what you evidently assess as being the issues and needing synod’s correction. You list three things. The first two can pass inspection, but the third? “Is salvation by faith and by the works of faith?” As if that was what Hope’s consistory was approving, what was being preached from their pulpit, and most of its members were oblivious to? And that this is what Classis East was willing to defend by its decisions? That is a serious misrepresentation. That was not the issue before synod. To indicate that it was is not honest or helpful.
As our churches go forward and my active ministry draws to a close, my earnest prayer is that the PRC’s response to synod’s recent decisions is not to over-correct, lest we slide towards the ditch of the antinomian perspective. Over-correction is always a danger. And the ditch on the right (antinomianism) is as real as the ditch on the left (work-righteousness).
The article of October 1 was written with that in mind. And nothing more.
Yours for the cause of God and truth,
Rev. K. Koole