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“Life less painful, death more hopeful”

In the spring, 1977 issue of the Bethesda Bulletin, there came to my attention an article by the chaplain of that institution, Rev. Richard Bennink, with the above title. The substance of the article is rather disturbing—for it is hardly Reformed and surely not Scriptural. He appears to reject the idea that God “permits” pain and death. He will have nothing of the thought that God uses this as a means of testing our faith. He has reservations about the idea that pain and death are the result of sin. He writes:

Along with our personal questions and pain we ask questions when others die, such as Why do good people suffer and die? A traditional answer from the church has been that God does not cause pain and death but that He permits it. God allows such things to happen. Why? Well, that is the problem with this answer. We have to explain why God permits it. Some have explained pain and death as a way in which the glory of God may be made known. But how does the pain and death of loved ones glorify God? How does the slaughter of innocent persons’ reveal God’s glory? 

Another explanation of why tragic events occur is that suffering and pain are God’s means of testing our faith. Is God so capricious as to cause little children to die in order that He might test their parent’s faith? Another explanation heard is that pain and death are the result of sin. As much as that may be true, are earthquakes the result of sin? Is this how God punishes sin? I do not believe in that kind of God. Any attempts to explain pain and death in a logical and rational manner are foolish. There are no answers, no single solutions, no human reason for suffering, pain and death.

Bennink continues by pointing out that when Lazarus died, Martha had stated, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He points out that Jesus “refocused Martha’s attention from the present death to the present life. He did not tell her to have more faith or to recognize this as a test or to see God’s glory in the event. He simply offered her his presence, and in that presence there was hope.” The writer concludes:

There can be no explanation of pain and death. To have faith in Christ means that in spite of what we see and feel and experience in our lives, there is a hope that life has meaning and worth. The meaning and worth of being alive right now and offering our love and our hope to a world that is afraid of death.

With such ideas, what comfort can a child of God have? Where is the sovereignty of God? And if God is not sovereign, even over sickness and death, faith has no meaning whatever. What would faith in a non-sovereign God be, anyway? 

It is true that the child of God is oftentimes at a loss to explain various afflictions which befall him. Scripture, however, does very much speak of this. The whole of the book of Job reveals the sovereignty of God in the afflictions which befall the saints. Psalm 119 is filled with statements as, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (vs. 71). And: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word” (vs. 67). Or does not Scripture itself say, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Cor. 4:17). Note that this Word of God calls affliction “light” (though it does not always seem so), and “for a moment” (though often it seems to continue forever), but especially that it even is used by God to work a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. So there is a Scriptural explanation of affliction and death. Many more passages teach the same. 

Yes, there are problems and “whys” in the mind of the afflicted Christian. But the answer to all of this must never, never be a denial of God’s sovereignty—for then affliction is only a matter of chance or accident—and then there is no comfort or peace in our trials whatever. Rather, with Paul, we confess: “And I know that all things work together for good to them that love God who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). 

Reports from other church synods

We have been observing reports of actions of various church bodies which have met during the past summer. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in N.A. (Covenanters) decided to make two changes in their regulations. Whereas formerly they held to “closed” communion (where only members of their own denomination could partake of communion during their services), they now have what we would call a “close” or supervised communion where their session (or consistory) may grant an applicant the privilege to partake. The second change they made seems to allow an applicant for membership to join without subscribing fully to the standards of the church. This means, it is said, that if one does not subscribe to the church’s teaching concerning the exclusive use of psalmody in worship, he may yet become member.

Among other decisions, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church US took action approving new ordination vows which take immediate effect. Critics claim that the new vows allow an officer of the church even to deny the infallibility of the Scriptures. This same body, according to the Presbyterian Journal of July 6, 1977, “endorsed a controversial study paper on homosexuality, took a position opposite from that of Anita Bryant’s ‘Save Our Children’ movement, and beat back efforts to say that homosexual activity is contrary to Scripture or that it is a sin.” 

According to the R.E.S. News Exchange, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, after 29 years of study, adopted a book of principles and rules to govern the church more adequately. Debate was strong on another proposal to hire a full-time general secretary. The fear seemed to be that this would be the beginning of creating a ‘”relatively independent bureaucracy” in the church. After first voting down the proposal, it was reconsidered and approved. On the Assembly there was voiced some opposition to continued membership in R.E.S. (Reformed Ecumenical Synod), but the membership was continued. The O.P.C. is one of five Presbyterian and Reformed bodies which have decided to accept the invitation to meet concurrently at Calvin College campus next year in their annual meeting. 

One of the more emotional issues at the Synod of the Reformed Church in America was the bankruptcy of one of their churches (San Dimas). It seems that many in that denomination (and others) invested in this church venture (millions of dollars) which subsequently went bankrupt. Many aged people lost their life’s savings in the venture. The R.C.A. Synod refused to assume any moral or legal responsibility for this, but did set up a relief committee to assist those who lost their life savings in the project. For the fifth consecutive year, the Synod referred to the Classes the issue of women’s ordination to the ministry. If 2/3 of the Classes approve, it would then be brought to Synod for final approval. Last year, the issue was defeated by lack of only one Classis of the 2/3 majority needed. I suppose it proves the old point, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Next year, the R.C.A. will observe its 350th anniversary. It is the “oldest Protestant body with a continuous ministry in the U.S.” 

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church seemed to have its most heated debates in connection with their college (Erskine) at Due West, S.C. The two central issues were the rules governing student behavior and the college’s faculty hiring practices. It seems that recently the college allowed liquor in dormitories and allowed “closed door” visitation by male and female students. There was also a question of the Christian commitment of some of the faculty. The General Synod decided to direct the board to “require that those teaching Bible will personally affirm and teach the Scriptures as the infallible and inerrant Word of God.” The board was also directed to end the permissiveness on drinking and drug usage as well as the practice of “closed door” visitations. However, some pointed out that the Synod by no means condemned these practices as strongly as it ought.

Does God love everyone?

In the Banner of August 26, 1977, Dr. John H. Bratt answers the question, I suppose as one could expect, affirmatively. He too has taken the position that not only is God’s grace common, but also His love. It was precisely this inevitable development that our leaders feared in 1924 when they opposed the teachings of common grace. Writes Bratt:

It is not stated explicitly in the Bible that God loves everyone, but I do think that it is a valid conclusion from the Biblical givens. 

God is the Creator of the world and of everything in it. He loves the world,

John 3:16,

and His image bearers in it to such an extent that He was willing to send His Son to die for it. 

The prophet Malachi ties up the two concepts of creatorhood and fatherhood when he asks rhetorically: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?”

Mal. 2:10

And fatherhood throughout the Scriptures is synonymous with love. We do have the interesting observation too of Mark that when the rich young man turned his back on Jesus, the Son of God Himself, “looking upon him, loved him.”

Mark 10:21

But what of passages of Scripture which speak of the hatred of God toward the wicked (Ps. 11:5)? What of Esau whom God hated before he was born? This can not refer to the nation Edom, nor can it possibly be that “Esau took his fatal step, and God hated his evil act.” Whom did Christ love? In John 17:9 Jesus says that He does not even pray for the world. Yet does He love it? If He so loved everyone, did He die for everyone? What is the difference between Bratt’s view and open Arminianism?