It is a special privilege for me to give the address tonight. It is always a privilege to give the address for the Seminary commencement, but it is a special privilege for me tonight. That is because two of the graduates were parishioners of mine in South Holland when they felt called to the ministry. They spoke with me about this and I counseled them at that time. I have observed them through the years of their training, and now they graduate. For that reason I am especially grateful that I may speak.
Graduates, Candidates, we are thankful with you tonight. You have attained a significant goal. You have been through some seven years of training and instruction in preparation for the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the church of Jesus Christ. That is a significant accomplishment. Many hours of study and prayer went into that. Now you are candidates and anticipate the call of Christ through His church. That is abundant reason for thanks. It is the fruit of the grace of God to you and to our churches. We rejoice with you and wish you God’s richest blessings.
I wish to speak to you about traditions tonight. That is a bad word on the ecclesiastical scene today. By tradition is meant the doctrine and practice which have been handed down to us from the past and preserved throughout the ages in God’s church. The church today does not want that tradition. Renewal is the good word today. Among many it is charismatic renewal, a return, they say, to the zeal and gifts of the early, Spirit-filled, tongue-speaking New Testament church. Among others renewal means something quite different. It amounts to revolution against time-honored tradition. There is a revolution against the traditional doctrines: creation in six days, the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, predestination, particular and effectual atonement, the virgin birth of Jesus and more. In the sphere of practice .renewal means revolution against the way the church does things and the life of the people of God. Drama and dance are approved as well as divorce and remarriage. The traditional methods of missions and evangelism, the simple preaching of the gospel, are said to be wrong. The traditional way of worship with the emphasis on the preaching of the Word must be changed. Thus it is said the traditions have to go. They belong to a by-gone era. The church today needs renewal and change.
Over against all this I submit to you that there is a set of traditions which we have inherited. Those traditions have come out of the infallible Word of God and have been transferred to us from the church of all ages through the Reformation of the sixteenth century and through the Reformation of 1924. These are Protestanttraditions and they are Reformed traditions. To these traditions God calls us to hold.
The word tradition means a giving over, a passing down either by mouth (oral tradition) or by writing. It refers to the transmission by ancestors to posterity. A tradition, therefore, is that which is handed down or inherited; a set of beliefs or practices or both. We find this idea in Scripture. We read, for example, of the “tradition of the Pharisees.” The reference is to the whole body of laws, precepts, and interpretations of the law of God; that whole system of “work righteousness” so sharply condemned by Jesus. This is, of course, tradition in the bad sense. The term is also used in a good sense in Scripture to refer to the truths of the Word of God which are transmitted from one generation of God’s people to the next. (Cf. II Thess. 2:15).
It is in this latter sense that we speak of traditions. This means that our traditions are not the teachings of men or the practices of mere men. Our traditions are not the teachings of Hoeksema and Ophoff, Bavinck or Kuyper, Luther or Calvin. Our traditions are not even the teachings of Peter, Paul, John, Moses or Isaiah. But our traditions are the truths of Holy Scripture, the doctrines and the way of life taught in God’s Word and transmitted from generation to generation by God’s people, right down to the present day.
More specifically those traditions are set forth in our creeds. In the Three Forms of Unity the church has set forth and systematically arranged the truths of Holy Scripture. As Protestant Reformed Churches we have inherited these truths. They are our traditions. Those creeds are under severe attack of late. It is being said that they need revision at many key points. Moreover many truths are openly contradicted and denied. Gravamina are lodged against key creedal truths as, for example, reprobation. That is a despising of the Spirit’s guidance and preservation of the church in the past and a despising of the church itself which struggled to express and maintain the truth, often sealing its confession with its own blood. We must hold these confessional Reformed traditions.
Specifically those traditions are doctrinal first of all. Belonging to them is the doctrine of Holy Scripture, the truth that Scripture is the very Word of God. That tradition is under vicious attack in our day. Scripture is said to contain a human element or factor which makes for all kinds of inaccuracies and errors. Or it is said the Bible is full of myths and teaching models. The Bible is not reliable in what it says concerning the origins of man and the universe. Its accounts of the miraculous cannot be trusted. There are errors of historical fact and genealogy. The Bible is man’s witness to God or the record of man’s religious experience or encounter with God. Over against that the Scripture itself testifies that it is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness. (II Tim. 3:16) The Bible says that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. (II Peter 1:20, 21) This means that the Bible is the infallible, inspired Word of God, our only authority for faith and life. That is our confessions and that is our tradition and to it we must hold. And that is absolutely critical, for quite obviously our view of Scripture determines our view of everything.
There is also the traditional doctrine of the covenant. There are many views on the covenant. Some teach that the covenant is a pact or bilateral agreement between God and man. Others find the essence of the covenant in a conditional promise. Over against these the Scriptures teach and we believe that the covenant is the bond of friendship between God and His people in Christ. The covenant is established by God in Christ sovereignly and according to His eternal counsel. The covenant is maintained and realized by God in Christ through His Holy Spirit and Word. We also affirm the second part of the covenant, our obligation to new obedience. The covenant obligates us to a life of obedience, an antithetical walk in the midst of the world. We must be manifest, as members of the party of the living God. For that same reason we have our children catechized and we maintain wherever possible covenant Christian schools where our children are taught the fear of God. This truth belongs to our traditions. In fact it is a distinctively Protestant Reformed tradition.
There are the doctrines of sovereign grace. To these belong the truths of man’s total depravity, his inclination to sin and his inability to do the good; God’s unconditional election off His people in Christ in distinction from the rest whom He reprobates; the limited or definite and effectual atonement of Jesus Christ; irresistible grace and the, perseverance of the saints. These doctrines of sovereign and particular grace are clearly taught in Scripture. They are set forth in the creeds and have been confessed by the church throughout the ages. For them we had to battle in 1924 and again in 1953. They belong to the traditions which we must hold.
There is the tradition of the godly way of life. Scripture calls us as the redeemed to a life of godliness, obedience to the law of God. In every sphere—home, church, school, work, and recreation—we are called to live antithetically out of the principle of regeneration, opposing the evil. Strangers we are, pilgrims as all our fathers were, for we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. That great truth has been preached and lived by the church throughout the ages. It belongs to our traditions.
There is our liturgical tradition. Belonging to it is Psalm singing. Psalm singing is taught by the Word of God and required by the Church Order of Dordt. The Psalms are the inspired songbook of the church. The church through the ages has sung the Psalms: the church of the Old Testament sang them; Jesus and the church of the Apostolic era sang them; the Reformational church returned in its liturgy to Psalm singing; the Dutch church of our fathers sang the Psalms and we are still singing them today. Psalm singing is our beautiful, distinctive musical tradition and we must hold to it. There are the prayers and Scripture readings and the offerings to relieve the poor and to maintain the ministry and schools. These are taught in Scripture and belong to our tradition.
But the chief element in our liturgical tradition is the preaching of the Word. The church of the Old Testament through its prophets preached: Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom. The church of the New Dispensation through its apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors. and teachers preached. The Reformation was liturgically pre-eminently a return to preaching. The Dutch churches were known for preaching and producing some truly great preachers. The same is true of our own churches. Our Protestant Reformed fathers, Ophoff, Hoeksema, Vos, were excellent preachers and they taught us to strive for excellence in preaching. Our worship services today are characterized chiefly by sound, exegetical preaching of the Word. That is the Protestant Reformed liturgical tradition. Its beauty lies in its profound, Biblical simplicity.
To these traditions we must hold. That involves in the first place a sturdy defense of them. This is necessary because those traditions are under attack. That always was the case but it is the more true today. The attacks have intensified. Every tradition which we have mentioned, both doctrinal and practical and liturgical, not only has been denied in the past but is denied today. And that too not only by the liberal church but within the Reformed churches. Many winds of false doctrine blow today. Hence without shame or fear we must defend those traditions. We must expose and refute the false doctrines and evil practices. In our preaching, teaching, and evangelizing we must show the error of them out of the Word of God. That is a difficult task to be sure. It is not calculated to make us popular. In fact we will be cordially hated for it. But if our churches are to stand in this evil day then those traditions must be zealously defended.
In the second place there must be positive exposition of the traditions, especially the doctrinal traditions, for they are the foundation of the Christian life. Again that is terribly necessary. If there be no positive exposition of the traditions the churches will stagnate and fall into the pit of dead orthodoxy. And if that happens they will not be able to hold the traditions.
Hence we must constantly be searching the Scriptures, for they are an unfathomable treasure. We must know and diligently study the creeds and we must be steeped in the writings of the fathers. The fruit will be that the churches will grow and develop in the knowledge of the truth. They will be faithful to the Word in doctrine and walk. They will hold to the traditions and the glory of God will shine in them.
But how is this to be done? By what means shall the church defend and expound the truth? The answer: by preaching! The churches must preach. Preaching, as we have seen, is itself a tradition. It is alive in our churches, Our churches are characterized by many things: doctrinal awareness and sensitivity, insistence on a godly walk, discipline, generous support of the causes of God’s kingdom and more. But the one thing that stands out above all else is our preaching. It is the distinguishing mark of our churches and it is our strength. It is utterly crucial that we be faithful in preaching. The Scriptures teach that by preaching the wisdom of this world is made of no effect and believers are saved. (I Cor. 1) By preaching believers are kept from being tossed to and fro by every wind of the doctrine of deceivers, and they are built up into the Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 4) By a preacher who is sent by Christ we hear Christ, are given faith to call upon His name and be saved. (Romans 10) By the sincere milk of the Word which by the gospel is preached unto us we grow. (I Peter 2) We must preach, therefore. It is the only way we shall defend and expound the truth. It is the only way we shall administer the sacraments and exercise discipline. It is the only way we shall hold to our traditions.
Our calling is plain. The seminary must prepare preachers. Professors must therefore vindicate sound doctrine, expound the Holy Scriptures, and hold the traditions so that the truth is developed and preachers are prepared for the churches. The churches must exercise discipline, administer the sacraments, care for the poor, visit the sick, comfort the dying and sorrowful. But above all the churches must preach the Word. At home, on the Lord’s Day, in catechism, from house to house, in missions, among all nations wherever God leads and opens doors, the churches must preach.
And, candidates, that is your calling. You graduate tonight out of a marvelous tradition, the Protestant Reformed tradition. God in His eternal love and wonderful grace has preserved that among us. You have been instructed in those traditions the past three years. Hold to them. Defend them fearlessly. Expound them faithfully. If those traditions are to continue in the churches you above all will have to hold them! And, finally, if I may end on a somewhat personal note, I have often told you in class that you must be many things in the ministry. You must be compassionate pastors after the example of the Good Shepherd of the sheep. You must be able to visit the sick, comfort those in sorrow, bring the Word to those distressed, admonish the wayward. All this and more you must be. But I also always told you and I take this opportunity to exhort you once more, above all else: strive to be good preachers!
May God bless you and our churches.