(Transcript of the commencement address delivered at the Graduation Program of our Seminary, June 7, 1983 at the Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Mich.)
Graduates Gritters and Hanko, Brethren of the Synod and Theological School Committee, Faculty Colleagues, and Beloved Brethren and Sisters:
Our gathering tonight is in honor of our two candidates; they are our guests of honor. And this occasion of graduation calls for congratulations to our candidates. For me—and I am sure also for my colleagues—there is always an element of nostalgia in graduation, because it means the end of the way. As far as the faculty-student relationship is concerned, we say farewell to you as students. Nevertheless, this graduation is an occasion for joy, also for us. We rejoice with you that after many years you have attained to your goal; and our hope and prayer is certainly that the Lord may soon provide places for you in the ministry of our churches.
You, as candidates, belong to a unique group. I say that not so much from the point of view of the fact that the diplomas which you shall receive tonight are relatively rare and mark you as belonging to a rather small group of men who have graduated from a small and little known institution, but especially from the point of view of the fact that those diplomas are unique incharacter. They mark you as candidates for the ministry in our Protestant Reformed Churches, that is, as candidates for the ministry in the true church, that is, as candidates for the ministry in the purest manifestation of the body of Christ on earth.
It is my purpose in this graduation address to call your attention to that unique position, and I do that under the theme:
AT THE POINT OF THE WEDGE
I.The Wedge and Its Point
II.The Point of the Point
III.Our Calling To Stand At That Point
The Wedge and Its Point
You will have detected immediately that there is a figure of speech in my subject: the figure of the wedge. If you consult any good dictionary, you will find that a wedge is one of the six basic mechanical devices, along with, for example, the wheel, the inclined plane, and others, Such a wedge may be de fined as a piece of metal, thick at one end, tapering to a point, or thin edge, at the other, which is used in such processes as the splitting of wood and of rocks. From this basic idea it has obtained a secondary usage in the area of military science and military tactics. It is used to refer to a body of troops or soldiers that is drawn up in the form of a wedge. It belonged, for example, to the group of formations which was possible under the phalanx arrangement for which Alexander the Great was noted in ancient times. It is to that latter idea of the wedge in the military sense that the poet John Milton refers somewhere in the lines:
In warlike muster they appear,
In rhombs, and wedges, and half-moons, and wings.
That figure of the wedge has been and may appropriately be applied to the position of the true church in the midst of the world. That true church is not to be conceived, as some theologians have suggested, in terms of a wheel with its hub and spokes, so that all the various churches here in the midst of the world, with their differences, are like those spokes: each approaching the center, the hub, the true church, but from various positions and various directions. That is not the idea of the true church of Jesus Christ in the midst of the world. Much more appropriate is the idea of the wedge. That true church is like a wedge, a military wedge, like a body of troops drawn up in the form of a wedge, moving through history, moving through this present world. At the point of the wedge stands the true church in its purest manifestation; and trailing back from that point are various other churches, still to some degree representing the true church, but in increasingly lesser degrees of purity and truth. That is the basic idea of the figure of the wedge in my address tonight.
That true church here in the world, remember, is known and clearly discernible by the well-known three marks, distinguishing marks, which our Belgic Confession of Faith mentions in Article 29. It is known—and we must always remember that—not by its membership. There have been those, you know, who have accused us at times of understanding the idea of the true church in that latter sense. And then they have flung in our faces sometimes the taunt, “You Protestant Reformed people think that you are the only ones who are going to heaven, that everyone else is going to hell; you think that you are the only elect, and that all the elect are found in the Protestant Reformed Churches.” That is nonsense, of course! The true church is not marked by its membership, nor by the holiness of its membership, nor by the elect character of its membership, or any such thing. The true church is characterized by the marks, namely: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the holy sacraments, and the proper exercise of Christian discipline. Those marks, therefore, may be said to represent the point of the wedge. True, it is the church which is known by those marks which is at the point. But it is those marks, after all, which represent the real nature, the essential character, of the point. If you ask the question, “Where is the point of the wedge?” the answer is: the point of the wedge is where those marks are.
Now among those marks which I just mentioned, the pure preaching of the Word, or the confession of the truth, may be singled out as the chief, the principal mark. I will not spend much time on arguing that point. On that pure preaching of the Word the other marks depend. From that pure preaching of the Word the other marks grow. That is also the position, for example, of the Public Declaration of Agreement to which our synodical delegates assented at the beginning of our Synod. You read in that Public Declaration: “Of all the marks by which the true church distinguishes itself from all human societies, the Confession of the Truth must be mentioned in the first place.” The Formula of Subscription similarly lays exclusive stress on that confession of the truth and on the necessity of preaching and teaching that truth of the Word of God faithfully.
From that point of view, the point of the wedge is, in a word, our Reformed faith according to the Three Forms of Unity. Not, you understand, next to or instead of the Word of God! Of course not! But it constitutes the point of the wedge because those confessions, as the Formula of Subscription and the Public Declaration of Agreement both state, do fully agree with the Word of God. To that confession of the truth, that pure preaching of the gospel, we are committed. We are committed diligently to teach it and faithfully to defend it. We are committed never to contradict it by public preaching or writing. That is the vow of every officebearer; and that will be the vow of our candidates when, the Lord willing, they will be ordained in the future. Moreover, that commitment is an antithetical one. We are committed not only to reject all errors that militate against that truth, and particularly the errors of Arminianism, which are condemned in the Canons of Dordrecht. But we are committed to refute and to contradict those errors, and to exert ourselves to keep the church free from them.
Such, briefly, is the character of the point of the wedge.
The Point of the Point
But we may be, and we must be, even more specific.
Negatively, you understand, we as Protestant Re formed Churches are not simply Reformed in the confessional sense of the word if that means that wemerely stand where Reformed churches stood 350 years ago at Dordt. We must remember that. We are not, and we may not represent ourselves to be merely “conservatively Reformed,” as many others in our day still attempt to represent themselves. We are not that, and we may not represent ourselves as such, either at home or on the mission field!
Positively, I want to stress that we occupy a distinctive position, and we have a distinctive heritage, and we proclaim a distinctive message. And I mean distinctive, not merely as over against the ecclesiastical world at large, or even the “evangelical” ecclesiastical world at large, but in distinction from the world of Reformed churches. It is to this that I allude when I speak of the point of the point.
Why is that? Why is it that we have a distinctive position and a distinctive heritage and a distinctive message?
That is not, you understand, because we have something essentially and principally more or new or additional in relation to our confessions. O no! We stand foursquare on the basis of our Reformed Confessions. Period! But that we have a distinctive heritage is due to the fact that the wedge of the true church moves through history. We do not stand at Dordt any longer; we live in the latter part of the twentieth century. And when that wedge moves through history, in the process of that movement the point of the wedge is sharpened. Better put, the Lord our God Himself sharpens the point, causing the true church here in the world to develop, to grow, to be enriched in the truth, and to be enriched in the pure preaching of the gospel. Always, remember, this development and enrichment is in the line of the confessions; and usually, if not always, it takes place through the process of crisis and conflict. That is what happened to us as Protestant Reformed Churches. Hence, today we have and we maintain our Reformed Confessions; but we do so, in the first place, over against the errors of 1924. And, by the way, do not imagine that somehow over the years those errors have vanished into thin air somewhere. They have not! They are everywhere in the ecclesiastical world today! Very really! You don’t have to search far to find them anywhere in the church. We have that heritage over against the error that there is grace for the reprobate; over against the error that the gospel is a general offer of grace and salvation to all men; over against the error that sin is restrained through common grace, so that depravity is not total; and over against the error that the unregenerate man can do much good. That is our heritage! The point has been sharpened!
That point was sharpened once more in the years around 1953. We have our Reformed heritage as maintained and developed over against the errors of that time, particularly the errors of Heynsianism and of the Liberated theology, errors concerning the covenant and concerning baptism and concerning a general, conditional promise. And again, let me remind you that those errors have not evaporated into thin air. They have not! Turn where you will in the ecclesiastical world today—and I speak from experience—you will find these errors everywhere.
And so beloved, it is quite appropriate to speak tonight of the point of the point! We have a distinctive heritage. And that distinctive heritage is not only negative: it is not only that we stand against certain things. No church can exist by mere negatives.
That heritage is positive as well. We have a heritage! That heritage can be summarized in various ways, but permit me briefly to spell it out tonight as follows.
In general, that heritage consists in the truth of the organic conception of the development of the covenant of God, in connection with the organic development of all things, according to the sovereign counsel of God, and along the lines of sovereign election and reprobation. Let me just spell that out very briefly.
First of all, that means that God in the beginning created the world not simply a mass of creatures, but a cosmos, an organic whole. He created it in an ascending scale, from the non-living, or an organic matter, to plants, to the animals as living souls, to man, who was created, in the image of God, in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The center of that cosmos lay in the heart of man as he came from the hand of his Creator. And through that heart of man the entire world, the entire cosmos, was united in the covenant fellowship of friendship with the heart of God. That was the original state of things. And there you have, already in the beginning, the fundamental idea of God’s covenant.
Secondly, in that original harmonious relationship a breach was struck. That breach was struck, however, not the essential relation of things. The world did not: become a chaos. And man did not become an animal, or insane, or a devil. No, the original organic relationship of the universe was maintained by God by His providence. But the breach was struck in the heart of man. It was a spiritual, ethical breach. The image of God in him was perverted into its diametrical opposite. Man became totally depraved. He became an enemy of God. He became, subsequently, the proper object of the wrath of God. The result of that was death: death for Adam, death for all his posterity by nature. And the result was, too, that the whole creation, which stood related to man, came under the curse of God. Everything came to exist in the cycle of vanity.
A third stage was brought about, however, by grace in Christ Jesus. We must remember that the fall and its result certainly came about through the willful disobedience on man’s part, and that man in that connection is responsible. There can be no question about that! We must also remember, however, that this fall and disobedience came about not outside of, butaccording to the sovereign counsel of the Most High. Because of that, also through the fall God attained His purpose. The Lord God, beloved, is sovereign, absolutely sovereign! That purpose of God, from before the foundation of the world, was to establish and realize His everlasting covenant of friendship in Christ Jesus! It was His purpose to establish and realize that covenant in Christ, Who is, according toColossians 1, the Firstborn of every creature, and that, too, as the first begotten from the dead! The purpose of God was not to repair and restore what Adam and the devil and sin have spoiled, perhaps; but it was to raise up His creation through the deep way of sin and death and the grave and resurrection to heavenly glory—to raise it up to the glory of His heavenly house and His heavenly tabernacle in the new creation, as it shall presently be revealed in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. That purpose of God He accomplishes and reaches, remember, along the lines of sovereign election and sovereign reprobation. Grace is not common; grace is not general. But it is always particular, for the elect alone. And by that grace the kernel, the elect kernel, is saved, while the shell is rejected and perishes. Because of that, there is created here in the midst of the world the antithesis. What does that word mean, that word which is more and more forgotten in our day? It means this, that on the one hand, from a natural point of view, men here in the midst of the world have all things in common. God, you see, still maintains providentially the organism of the race. But that antithesis means, on the other hand, that from a spiritual point of view there is contrast, absolute contrast, and the conflict of sin and grace.
Such, briefly, is the point of the point.
Our Calling To Stand At That Point
It is our calling to stand there.
That is the calling of all our churches, our people, the calling of all of us. But it is especially the calling of our ministers. And tonight I want to emphasize that it is the calling of you two young ministers-to-be. That is your calling, especially your calling, by virtue of your very position as ministers.
What is involved in that?
Briefly, it means that you must instruct and instruct and instruct—in pulpit and in catechism class, at home or on the mission field. Always, of course, that instruction must be according to the capacity of those whom you are instructing. It means that the minister of the Word of God must indoctrinate and indoctrinate and indoctrinate! There is nothing that is more important in all your work than that. And it means that you must warn and warn and warn against all heresies repugnant thereto! I do not mean this, you understand, in the sense that you are always going to be speaking in the pulpit in the most direct sense of the things which I have just outlined tonight. A minister must not ride a hobby horse. But I mean it in the sense that these truths must permeate all your preaching and teaching, and that with respect to them you must be specifically specific! That is your calling.
That is necessary. Do not ever begin to think that it is not necessary. It is absolutely necessary. If you don’t do that, you will soon find yourselves and your churches no longer at the point of the wedge, but somewhere back farther from that point. A rather popularly stated rule applies here: “Use it, or lose it!” But the deepest reason, of course, why that is your calling is the fact that it is the calling from God Himself. For this heritage is from Him!
That calling is difficult—very difficult. To stand at the point of the wedge, at the point of the point, beloved, can be a very, very lonely position—sometimes lonely even in the midst of your own church. I know that. I know it by experience. Most of you, my colleagues in the ministry, do not know that by experience. I do. I literally experienced that among my fellow ministers in 1953, out west; I had to stand strictly alone. That is a lonely position. Don’t forget that! It may very well happen again some day. Sometimes I am afraid that I see telltale signs that such times are going to come again some day for us! Further, it is difficult also because none of us—not you, not I—wants to stand in that position as we are by nature. We want to run away from it!
Therefore, my concluding word is: may God give you candidates and give us all His grace, that we may be willing and ready to stand at the point of the point of the wedge!