(In this paragraph which is continued in this article and in the preceding paragraph Kuyper has begun a discussion of reformation by means of a break with the church. He has only introduced this subject, but has emphasized in the preceding material, that such reformation must be: 1) a work of God; 2) a work that begins in the consciousness of sin and guilt which arises in the heart of the believer.)
A Christian must not act out of a motivation for success. He must act only out of the obedience of faith. The question is not whether he shall succeed, nor whether others shall laugh at him; but only the command of God may be the guide for his path. His calling is not to execute the counsel of God, but to walk in the law of the Lord. Entirely apart from the question of what others do, or of what shall be the end of the matter, or even of what is determined in the Lord’s counsel, he must do what he is commanded and he must witness where he is commanded to witness. If it pleases God to break my heart by making my dearest child waste away with fearful illness so that death is waiting to take its prey, what Christian father is there who would not feel the fearful judgment of God on his own guilt and sin? But also, what would you think of a father who is bowed down under the conviction of guilt, but left his helpless child to his own illness without putting forth any effort to bring about a cure?
A sound and good principle, therefore, includes the precept: no reformation apart from the conviction of guilt in the Lord’s people; no genuine conviction of guilt other than by means of the convicting inner work of the Holy Spirit; no inner working of the Holy Spirit other than according to God’s hidden counsel. But if that counsel is different, if that work of the Spirit is not present, and if the conviction of guilt with the Lord’s people is lacking, even then duty, pure duty, requires of us all that we keep all unholiness from the Lord’s altar. And even if there is only one who receives that conviction of guilt from the Spirit, he can and must not hesitate to act according to the will of the Lord regardless of what he himself may have to suffer, yes, even if it brings him naked into the street.
God’s command is unconditional and penetrates into the joints and marrow of the soul. Every failure to obey this command, no matter how small, brings eternal death. Only the infinite sacrifice of Christ can, because He is God, wipe out the guilt of sin against that command. Just because the command is absolute, any excuse which appeals to past virtues or good works which we have done to escape the severity of that command, is no more than a speck of dust in the scales of God’s justice.
Let everyone consider and ponder that any departure from and attack against the existing church structure is a dreadful matter; and that no one can possess the holy courage for this unless he knows and understands: God wills it! Disobedience to human ordinances can and must be carried out only out of a higher obedience to the ordinances of God. The over-spiritual members, who by all sorts of reasonings talk away that voice of obedience, cut the sinew of the Christian life.
No, no, it is not as if in the matter of church reformation one thinks this way and another is of that opinion, and that now each, according to his own insight can do as he pleases. It is not a matter of personal opinion. If the obligation of obedience does not urge, induce, and compel one to action, then any activity is sin. But it is also true that if that obligation of obedience to God concerns one person, then it is also of concern to all. The command is general.
The reformation which this paragraph treats we define as: the ecclesiastical return to obedience to God and His Word because the church was disobedient to God and His Word.
He who has set up rules in his own house and has introduced practices which in hindsight he sees as militating against God’s Word, ought to change those rules and reverse those practices so that he once again becomes obedient to God. Neither an appeal to the authority of those rules nor any reference to the firmness of those practices can make him or anyone else innocent, even for a moment, if he continues to be disobedient.
A break with the existing rules and practices, or, if one wills, with the existing church, is allowed us, but then also without doubt commanded us, only if this organization prevents us as church from being obedient to God the Lord.
It follows from this that not only must spiritual awakening by conviction of sin precede all reformation by means of separation from the church, but also one must never proceed to such separation until he has first tried the way of gradual renewal and reformation within the church.
There is a spirit of caution in the child of God. He abhors the passion which would seek separation, and he ponders means to avoid the break. Only hard and painful necessity presses and forces and compels him to it. He wants to do differently, but he cannot.
First of all, other means must be carried to their very end before he engages in the action of separation or permits such action to take place.
Gradual renewal within his present church must therefore first be desired, sought, and prayed for. When the ecclesiastical assemblies from which this gradual church renewal alone can proceed, seek it apart from the honor of God, without adequate principle, and stubbornly refuse to bring the ecclesiastical organization back from its disobedience towards God; yes, stronger yet, when these assemblies oppose and punish every attempt to be obedient to the Lord; then, definitely, the moment has come when that separation neither can nor may be put off any longer.
Because separation from the existing church connection is to be discussed in the following paragraph, it is necessary to treat here only such reformation which leaves the church connection undisturbed, or, at any rate, does not clash with the church connection. We are here chiefly concerned with the reformation of the local church, i.e., that church which primarily concerns the individual member.¹
The church to which we belong is the body of Christ. That body of Christ is locally manifested. It is therefore through the local church that we come directly into contact with the body of Christ. Each of us bears a direct responsibility for the local church, and it is in, through, and with it that we must manifest ecclesiastically our obedience to God.
“Ecclesiastical obedience” is an expression which hardly needs further explanation. God the Lord has demanded obedience from us on every level of life. We must live in obedience to the Lord our God in our personal, our family, or societal, our political, and also our ecclesiastical life. There are no limits to obedience to God. If anyone walks obediently in society, but neglects that obedience in his home, he is still guilty. And so also, if anyone serves his God in his home and in society but is disobedient to God in his church, that violation of God’s majesty is also evident.
Thus this rule applies: even though anyone is (himself) obedient to God in his own church, he may nevertheless become corporately guilty of the disobedience of others by his cooperation with them.
If therefore the church to which one belongs lives in a state of disobedience, then each child of God is obligated to set his obedience over against that disobedience.
If the disobedient church permits this kind of conduct, makes room for it, makes this possible for him, then the result is not separation. But if, on the other hand, the church hinders and prevents this obedience to God, then the child of God may not cease being obedient, but he must go through with it even if there is the danger of punishment, yes, even if the punishment of death threatens him. This is true in two respects. First, each child of God must refuse to do anything, to have a part in anything, or to cooperate in anything which is disobedience to God. And, on the other hand, he must be obedient to what God requires even though men forbid him, hinder him, or try to make it impossible.
The cases in which something like this can occur are chiefly the following. 1) With respect to what God forbids: a) the refusal to serve images or to pray to Mary and the saints; b) to participate in religious meetings where the truth is mutilated or suppressed; c) to sing songs which are not in harmony with God’s Word; d) to participate in sacraments which are not rightly administered; e) to give one’s children education or to confirm them, as men say, or to have confirmation by and through ministers, who derogate the truth; and f) to give reverence to ecclesiastical persons in ways which detract from the kingship of Jesus. And likewise, 2) with respect to that which concerns obedience to God when we are hindered from it: a) hindered in our calling to possess the preaching of the Word and to seek this preaching elsewhere than in the church to which we belong, or to establish a church where preaching is restored; b) hindered in our obligation to have the sacraments of baptism and communion for ourselves and for our children; and c) hindered in our obligation to witness against sin and error in the congregation.
In all these instances each member of the church is bound to deal with these matters, and in simplicity of heart to walk in the way of duty and calling. If the consistory opposes this, then such a member must nevertheless continue. If punishment follows he must suffer this punishment, and, indeed, not even then cease for a moment from that which brings the punishment upon him. If the consistory hinders him from obtaining through ecclesiastical channels what he must have from the church according to God’s Word, then the obligation rests upon him to correct this deficiency by gathering with others who are likeminded.
¹ This refers to a distinction Kuyper has mentioned before between the local congregation of which one is a member and the denomination at large.