Our subject for this evening, I want you to know, creates in me a mixed feeling.
On the one hand, I consider 1953 as one of the darkest periods in my life; one that I certainly would not like to live over. First, my closest friends, in whom I had confided and with whom I had associated very intimately turned against us to introduce error into the churches. Second, controversy at best is never pleasant, as all of you who have gone through that experience will agree. But when it involves the household of faith, one’s pulpit, one’s consistory meetings, and every aspect of one’s ecclesiastical life, it is extremely painful. You who in 1953 had a similar experience in your congregation will know what I mean. Besides, we saw many of our churches weakened by loss of membership, and some congregations were lost completely; while also a number of ministers left us to walk no more with us. They deliberately turned their backs to the truth they once professed to have cherished. Of all those who left us, I was convinced then and am convinced now, that there were among them many conscientious believers who were swept along without realizing all that was involved.
On the other hand, I am thankful and rejoice in the fact that the Lord preserved us as Protestant Reformed Churches, even as through fire. We can be the more thankful when we see the churches round about us being infiltrated with various errors.
Our subject for this evening is very important, and that for at least three reasons. First, this took place 25 years ago. Many of our people were still too young to realize just what was happening. Others of our younger generation were not yet born.
Second, there has always been a serious misunderstanding about the controversy of 1953. At the time of the controversy the lines were not always sharply drawn. Although much was written about conditional theology and this was openly defended from the pulpit, the defenders still maintained that they were Protestant Reformed. Not they who introduced this error into our churches, but Rev. Herman Hoeksema, Rev. G.M. Ophoff, and those who stood with them did not preach any more as before. Besides, on one occasion a soundly Reformed sermon could be preached, on another occasion conditional theology would be heard from the pulpit. Out of that confusion arose the notion among many that the whole controversy was nothing more than a clash of personalities. Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Rev. G.M. Ophoff were branded as men difficult to get along with. This notion persisted for a long time and I ran into it even some years afterward.
Third, one reason for the rise of the controversy was dissatisfaction among the ministers and a certain complacency among the people. There was a lack of zeal for the cause, a lack of love for the truth as we professed and defended it, an unwillingness to sacrifice for the cause of the truth.
It is now 25 years later. Rev. Herman Hoeksema made the remark early in our history, that a church must expect a reformation approximately every 25 years. In that case, we are about due for another upheaval—which may God graciously forbid. Yet, to be honest with you, when I see the complacency creeping in among our people today, the lack of zeal for society activities, the lack of interest in the Standard Bearer and Beacon Lights, and other religious periodicals, then I fear that we are going into a slump out of which the Lord may have to arouse us with a strong hand.
Therefore my subject is most fitting at this time: God’s Providence in 1953 and Our Calling to Instruct our Children.
Consider with me:
I.God’s Providential Preservation at that Time.
II.The Necessity for that Preservation.
III. Our Calling in the Light of it.
I. God’s Providential Preservation in 1953.
In order to understand the controversy of ’53 in its proper light, it should be understood that the errors that were being introduced into our churches at that time struck at the very heart of the doctrine of our Protestant Reformed Churches. In 1924 our churches came into existence because we denied two things: The whole idea of Common Grace, that is, that God shows favor to the reprobate wicked; and the preaching of the Word as an offer of salvation to all who hear it. Now to deny something, no matter how serious that error may be, is still to take a negative position. We publicly denied those errors in preaching and in teaching. Yet it soon became evident that to take a negative position already implies something definitely positive. We found ourselves defending a positively Reformed view of God’s covenant. In fact, the Lord used Rev. Herman Hoeksema to develop a most beautiful Reformed view of God’s covenant, which clearly stands out in the Scriptures. It is our position that God’s covenant is not a contract or agreement between two parties, but rather that the covenant of God is a relationship of friendship between God and His people in Christ. Although that idea was not foreign to earlier theologians, it was never fully developed. Particularly in that respect our churches are distinctly Protestant Reformed. There are many churches, many denominations which maintain Calvinism. There are five point Calvinists, four point Calvinists, Calvinist Baptists, and other variations. There are also many churches that profess to believe the Three Forms of Unity, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt. But there is no other denomination that holds the rich and beautiful view of the covenant that God has entrusted to us. It was this view of the covenant that was being assaulted and that had to be defended for the future of our churches, or we would have lost our right of existence.
Let me try to clarify this a moment. The name of Dr. Schilder was often mentioned in connection with ’53. Dr. Schilder was a leader of the group in the Netherlands that called themselves “Liberated.” These Liberated have a view of the covenant which teaches that the promise of the covenant comes to all baptized children. They stress that when a child is baptized God says to that child, “I, Jehovah, baptize thee, John, Mary, or whomever, into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This means that every baptized child receives the promise of salvation; He is a son in God’s family, an heir to eternal life. Yet, you say, all baptized children are not saved. They realize that also. Therefore they teach that this promise is conditional. That is, the promise is given, but each child as he grows up must either accept or reject that promise. It is like an offer of salvation which, if not accepted, becomes null and void. The example has been used of a bank check. On the check is written the name of the person to whom a certain amount of money designated on the check is assured. If that person never takes that check to the bank to cash it, that check is worthless. God promises salvation on the condition that each baptized child will accept that salvation offered to him. If he fails to do that, he is a covenant breaker and is lost. That, you understand, is nothing less than the offer of salvation applied to holy baptism. That error we could never sanction in our churches.
You ask, how did this error ever lift its head among us? Well, in 1939, before the split in the Netherlands, Dr. Schilder was invited to come to America by some of the ministers of the Christian Reformed Church. Already then Dr. Schilder was suspect because of his views on the covenant and other issues. Certain ministers of the CRC warned against his coming, so that when he arrived many of the invitations to speak had been cancelled and he was refused the pulpit in the CRC. In total disgust he turned to us, had various conferences with us, spoke in some of our churches, lodged in some of our homes, and made himself quite friendly with us. Although there was the difference on the covenant, we enjoyed his visit. In 1943 he was deposed from the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands and helped to form the “Liberated” group. In 1946 Dr. Schilder came to America again and was heartily welcomed among our ministers and requested to speak in our churches. About that time and afterward there was a strong influx of immigrants from the Liberated churches of the Netherlands both in the United States and in Canada. These were instructed by their ministers in the Netherlands to seek affiliation with the PRC. These immigrants, having just come out of the controversy in the Netherlands, were strong on their conditional theology. Yet after some discussion with our ministers they expressed agreement with our doctrine so that two churches were organized in Canada, one in Hamilton, and the other in Chatham. Rev. Herman Veldman was minister in the Hamilton congregation for about two years. In 1950 our Synod drew up a “Declaration of Principles” which you can still find in our Church Order book. In this “Declaration of Principles” we publicly declare that we are opposed to the errors of common grace and the offer of salvation, but we also declare that we are opposed to the conditional theology of the “Liberated.” Proof is given from the Confessions that we maintain the position held by the fathers. Evidently spurred on by the desire to draw these Liberated people into our churches, some of our ministers began to write in favor of conditions unto salvation, even defending the idea that faith is a condition unto salvation. Although these ministers, with one exception, voted in favor of the “Declaration” in 1950, they strongly opposed it afterward. Rev. De Wolf, one of the ministers in First Church, Grand Rapids, soon followed their lead. He made the statement from the pulpit, “God promises to every one of you, that if you believe, you shall be saved.” Notice the “to every one of you,” and also the phrase, “if you believe.” This particular statement brought a storm of protest from the congregation. Later another statement was made: “Our act of conversion is a prerequisite to entering into the kingdom.” Upon those two statements, although there were also other questionable sermons that were delivered at that time, Rev. De Wolf was suspended from office. The result was, that many other ministers defended him and left us, taking along many of our members. The two churches in Canada had already left us to organize their own churches.
Although all this was exceedingly painful, we can see the providence of God in it. What appeared to be evil, the Lord turned to our good. The whole controversy brought the matter of the covenant in sharp focus. Ministers and members alike had to take a stand for or against the truth. Many of those who opposed us, many who were lukewarm in their convictions, many indifferent individuals were exposed and left us. ’53 was a purging, a reformation, by the good hand of the Lord upon us. Well may we say that the Lord preserved us, even when those who turned against us sought to destroy us, or we should certainly have perished. Our existence today is the result of the purging that we experienced 25 years ago.
II. The Necessity for that Preservation.
We ask ourselves, why was that purging necessary only 25 years after our churches were first organized?
The answer is, first of all, that the adage holds true, “All that glitters is not gold.” All those who joined us were not zealous for the cause.
This was true among the members. Already in 1924 and in the years that followed there were those who joined us out of ulterior motives. Some came because they enjoyed the excitement of a new movement, others because they were unhappy in their own churches, and others possibly for other personal reasons. As time progressed, young men and young women joined our churches through marriage. Some of these became good, stable members, but others were never happy with us, showed little interest and often agitated in various ways against the church. All of these unhappy and recalcitrant members brought a lot of dissension in our churches. The years before ’53 were marked by long classical meetings and long synodical gatherings, just because of the many protests that were brought to these gatherings. So many problems arose that we were sometimes referred to by outsiders as “a fighting bunch.” One grew weary of the constant strife within our ranks. How different our history has been since ’53.
But also among the ministers there was a growing evidence of dissatisfaction. There was a failure to bear with each others weaknesses. Especially Rev. Herman Hoeksema and Rev. G.M. Ophoff were criticized as being domineering and giving poor leadership. Some failed to see that God used men of that character and makeup to serve His purpose. There was an obvious failure to work together, small as we were. For example, in Michigan a paper was published that was called “The Church News”; the ministers in the mid-west published, a paper that was called “Concordia.” The churches already had the “Reformed Witness Hour,” but the churches in the mid-west began the “Sovereign Grace Hour.” Our synod had published catechism books to be used in our churches, but individual ministers began to publish their own books. Already then the harmony was disrupted. In the mid-west, conferences were held with the German Reformed Churches which resulted in an effort to unite with these churches. When Rev. Hoeksema and Rev. Ophoff opposed a hasty union because these churches were not Reformed, there was a certain unhappiness among the ministers about this. Later Prof. Schilder came to America and great enthusiasm was shown for his person. There was an attempt to bring the Liberated people into our churches, which also accounted for the effort to defend a “conditional theology.” Ministers opposed the “Declaration of Principles” even though at first they had voted in favor of it. All of this culminated in the split of ’53.
But, you ask, even though this was the occasion for the split, was there not another necessity for such a separation, viewed now from the aspect of God’s providence? The answer must be: most certainly. Churches tend to become complacent, resting on their laurels. Another generation had arisen that had not experienced the struggle of 1924 and could not appreciate it. They were PR merely because their parents were or because this was convenient for them. Parents did not instruct their children in the truth, ministers were no longer fired with zeal for the cause. The result was that members of the church could readily be drawn away from the truth. Remarks were made that there is not that much difference between the CRC and the PRC. Many were offended by references to being “distinctively PR.” The efforts to begin our own Adams school and Hope school met with much opposition, even from some of the ministers. It was only the strong determination and positive conviction of some of our men and of the mothers’ club which, under the grace of God, brought these schools into existence. There was a growing conflict in the church papers. But the Lord used also this internal strife to arouse the faithful members to a greater zeal for the truth and eagerness to fight to maintain the truth of God’s sovereign grace as God had entrusted that to us. There was a new interest in reading the church periodicals. There was a new interest in society meetings, in catechetical instruction, in the preaching of the Word. New life sprang into being. From that point of view it was a good time to live. Even though some of us were deprived of our church home permanently or for a time, there was a unity and harmony that thrilled the souls of the faithful.
III. Our Calling in the Light of ’53.
The question is, what does all this mean to us today?
First of all, it should fill our hearts with thankfulness that the Lord has preserved us by the wonder of His providence. There is no reason in any of us to boast. There were times during those years of strife when it appeared as if we were to be swallowed up. The devil used the instrument of the evil tongue in gossip, backbiting, and slander, so that many sincere members hardly knew where they stood. Sin certainly runs rampant in a time of controversy. The split cut right down the center line of our churches, taking half or more of some congregations, taking half or more of our churches. One could only marvel at the strong determination of the faithful members among us. The Sunday after the suspension of Rev. De Wolf no one had the slightest idea how many people would congregate, not in their own church building at Fuller and Franklin, but in Grand Rapids Central Christian High School. Other churches went through a similar experience, as many of you will recall. To our amazement, the auditorium was filled, giving us some 200 families in First Church which the Lord had spared out of the conflict. Likewise in our other churches there were faithful members who were willing to continue with but a handful of those who cherished the truth sufficiently to suffer for it. In Pella there were four faithful people, two couples, who hung on tenaciously until a viable congregation could once more enjoy a full church life. Our churches have grown, new congregations have been added, our mission endeavors have extended beyond our own country to Canada, to Jamaica, to Australasia, and to Singapore. Our seminary has been producing young men thoroughly trained for the ministry, and zealous for their calling. We may be deeply grateful to God for all that.
Secondly, we can be thankful for the unity that is still evident among us. Our people support the ministry of the Word and missions, as well as other causes. We still have our Christian schools, in an ever increasing number. Our teachers are faithful to the word of God. Our consistories report harmony and unity in the congregations. Our classical and synodical meetings have not been troubled with serious doctrinal issues or matters of internal strife. All this fills our hearts with joy and thankfulness.
Thirdly, the lesson we must take home with us tonight is that we can never cease to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for the heritage that is ours. Faith, and faith only, is the victory that overcomes the world. Therefore we must continue to attend our divine worship services in our own churches as faithfully as possible. We must diligently attend our society meetings to study the Scriptures together, and to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Communion of saints is a precious gift of God. We must read our church periodicals, the Standard Bearer and Beacon Lights, as well as other publications of our churches. We must be alert for sound preaching, supporting and encouraging our ministers in the defense of sound doctrine. Heresy as such usually begins in the seminary and on the pulpit. But the occasion for heresy to creep in rests in the pew. People become lax. They grow weary of long sermons, formal worship services. They want watered down preaching, a relaxing of discipline. The pulpit sometimes gives in to this so that the congregation is gradually lulled to sleep. And slowly but surely, even unawares, false doctrines creep in, while no one is prepared to oppose them. The devil finds fertile soil for the seed of error which grows so readily in a church that is half asleep. A generation arises that knows not the Lord, and that generation is ready to depart still farther from the truth. At last we become like Laodicea, the lukewarm church that is neither hot nor cold, fit only to be spewed out by Christ Himself.
Therefore, finally, a warning is not out of place. There is obviously a certain complacency among us today. Our parents are not interested in society activities as they should be. The church papers are not being read. In fact, very little interest is shown in doctrinal subjects, and there is very little desire to know and understand sound doctrine. Our children do not know our history. Nor are they founded in sound doctrine as they should be, mainly because there is very little desire to be instructed. Family devotions and family fellowship are being sacrificed for the rush and tumble of our daily existence. Family rooms are but a name. Our homes are more like hotels, with tenants coming and going. Parents and children are not alert to the errors and evils that threaten us. Nor is there a great zeal for the things of God’s kingdom which have virtually become secondary in our lives. We are too preoccupied with entertainments and pleasures of all sorts. Well may we be watchful in prayer, striving to hold that which we have and to pass it on to the generations to come, that no man take our crown. Ultimately, our own families, our own churches, our own personal faith, and our own blessedness are at stake. The Lord calls each of us to be faithful even unto death, for in that way alone do we attain the crown of life.
* Speech delivered for the Men’s and Ladies’ League, October 10, 1978.