Considerable attention has been given in various papers to the centennial of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and by the time this appears in print the present occupants of the old Eastern Avenue Church will have completed no little celebration of that occasion.
We are well aware, of course, that after 1924 both in the ecclesiastical courts and in the civil courts the “Ninety-two” were held to be the continuation of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. However, in truth and in fact the genuine continuation of that congregation was represented in the pastor and consistory and 450 families who were cast out and who became the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That is the reason, too, of course, why in our annual denominational Yearbook the date of organization of First Church is always given as 1879.
As far as I have heard, First Church has no plans for any special commemoration of its one-hundredth birthday. Nevertheless, not only as a son of First Church but also as one who was born and baptized a member of Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, I thought it fitting to make a contribution to the celebration of this anniversary. This contribution takes the form of a reproduction of one of two inaugural sermons delivered (and later published) by one of Eastern Avenue’s most illustrious pastors, Rev. Herman Hoeksema. The other of these two sermons was in the Dutch language (“Ik Wil Dat Gij Weet“) and would therefore not be edifying for most of our readers.
As I reread this sermon recently, I was struck by the fact that — apart from some details — the sermon is as appropriate and up-to-date today as it was a half century ago. Why? Because it sounds the keynote of all true preaching of the Word.
Read it, and find out for yourself.
(Inaugural sermon of Rev. Herman Hoeksema on Sunday, February 29, 1920, at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church)
Is. XL:6-8. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the Word of our God shall stand forever.
It is undeniable that the modem pulpit has, especially in recent years, been degraded into a platform for the propagation of purely humanistic philosophy. So-called ministers of the gospel have become preachers of man’s word, and the servants of Christ in His church have allowed themselves on more than one occasion to be employed as servants of men. I know it, usually the saying was that they served humanity and that they labored for the deliverance, for the up building of mankind and the world. But fact is, that under this beautiful slogan the Word of God as contained in the Scriptures was frequently set aside, failed to be heard from the modern pulpit, and instead all sorts of messages were delivered on a variety of topics that had little or no connection with the gospel of the kingdom. If complete statistics were available of all the subjects discussed before the congregated church of Christ by ministers of the gospel during the last half decade the result would be little short of astounding to whoever entertains a generally conservative conception of things. Now the flock of Jesus Christ came to the house of God on that Sabbath to be fed on a lecture on liberty bonds; now their spiritual life was supposed to be built up by a speech on thrift stamps. Again, one Sunday the most holy faith of God’s covenant people was established by an elaborate discussion of the necessity of good roads, chiefly perhaps for the purpose of making joyriding on the Sabbath more joyful; and another Sunday it was the topic of hygiene that was thoroughly discussed for the enlightenment of the children of the Kingdom. On these and numerous other subjects the church of God was frequently enlightened, with such nourishment the flock of Jesus Christ was often fed, and by it she was expected to live and to flourish. Sometimes a portion of the Word of God was still selected and so distorted as to serve as a hanger on for the lecture to be delivered. Often, however, this was deemed necessary no more, and the shepherd of Christ’s flock bluntly offered the sheep stones for bread.
Of course, this is no strange, no isolated phenomenon that finds to connection the modern world, no phenomenon that finds no connection with the modern view of the church and the world. If we are at all acquainted with the modem trend of development of thought we will be little surprised to find that in many a church the truth was preached no more and the pure Word of God set aside. Some of the most fundamental truths of Scripture, such as that of vicarious atonement and the necessity of regeneration were denied; truths like that of total depravity and original sin were laughed to scorn and termed mockingly as obsolete sixteenth century theology. And the church itself was considered more and more as a mere human society among others, existing for no other purpose in the world than the uplift of society and the betterment of humanity in the evolutionistic sense of the word. If she was to have any right of existence at all she surely was to be the servant of Man. Small wonder that also its ministers laboring under that false notion of the church became literally servants of men and delivered man’s word instead of God’s.
We emphatically refuse to be carried along by the drift of this modem development. And what must be emphasized in our age is that the Word of God and nothing but that Word, as it is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, must be brought to, the Church of Christ in the world. The minister has no other business. He is merely an ambassador. He receives his message not from men; he does not have the right to speak on his own authority. He is sent by the King of the church and, therefore, from that King he must receive His message. Nothing else. And that message of the King, as He has revealed it in the infallible Word of God he must deliver with boldness and distinctiveness. More boldly and more distinctly he must preach it according as the church in general and the world departs from it or discards it. And since we are about to assume our labors in your midst, we decided to speak to you this evening on the basis of the text we chose on:
The Word of God and Its Proclamation. Let us consider:
I. The Contents of That Word,
II. The Imperishable Nature of That Word,
III. The Mode of Its Proclamation.
I.To understand the words of our text we must remember that in this latter half of his prophecy the divine seer is placed on the standpoint of the latter half of the period of the captivity of the Israelish nation. God’s covenant people had filled the measure of their iniquity. They had repeatedly transgressed the covenant of Jehovah. They had cast to the wind the repeated call to repentance and conversion. And finally, in the prophetic vision they had already been carried away into the land of their exile, there, in Babylon to bear the punishment of their transgression. But in captivity they repented. The measure of their punishment became full. The faithful covenant God remembered the remnant of His people. And in that same prophetic state the seer is called to preach deliverance and salvation to the captive people. Our chapter relates how the prophet is called to deliver that message of joy and salvation. The voice of God comes to the prophet and to the prophets of God in general. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God!” so we read in the first verse of the chapter. They must, therefore, approach the people of Jehovah with a word of comfort. And the brief contents of their message of comfort is, that the warfare of God’s people is accomplished, that their iniquity is pardoned, that full atonement has been made for all their sins. And, therefore, the end of their punishment is arrived. They shall be delivered. Already a voice is heard proclaiming that the way through the desert must be prepared, for as in the glorious days of old Jehovah shall deliver His people and shall safely lead them through the desert back to the land of their inheritance. Hark! The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness! Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it, vss. 3-5. But hark! The prophet presently hears two more voices. The first is the voice of Jehovah. It saith: Cry! The other represents the voice of the prophets that are to go and bring the comforting message of joy and deliverance to the people of God. It asks: What shall I cry? And the answer of Jehovah comes: “All flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the Word of our God shall stand forever.”
The message, therefore, which the prophet must deliver, which he is enjoined to cry out is twofold. He must preach that all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. That like the grass it flourisheth today and withereth tomorrow. And in the second place, he must cry out that the Word of our God shall stand forever. And this twofold message may after all be comprised in one statement: While all else fails of fulfillment, the Word of our God shall surely be realized. What is, then, that Word of our God referred to in the text? It is nothing short of the entire counsel of salvation. It is in the first place the message of salvation as it must be delivered to the people of the captivity, the message of redemption as it is contained in the first verse of this chapter. It is the Word that speaks to the heart of Jerusalem. Her sins are atoned for. Her iniquity is pardoned. And, therefore, she may look forward to a speedy deliverance. Her warfare is accomplished. That Word of God the prophet must now deliver. That Word of God shall stand and surely be realized. But although this is true, although this Word of our God refers first of all to the message that must be delivered to the people of the captivity at this time, yet in the wider sense, as we will see presently, it implies the entire counsel of God’s salvation. In the wider sense the Lord here enjoins the prophet to cry: “Though the enemy may rise up against my counsel, and though there are periods in history in which it seems that my eternal counsel of salvation, the counsel I revealed from the beginning, shall not be realized, yet My Word shall stand forever!” That this is true will be evident if we take in consideration the historical circumstances of that time. It seemed at this time as if Jehovah had cast off His covenant people, as if they were irrevocably lost. That covenant people of God at the time was Israel. Outside of Israel God had no people. The world was through the nation of Israel only. There was the holy seed. There was the line of the, seed of the woman. Nowhere else. But apparently that people had been cast away. They had sinned. They had tilled the measure of their iniquity. It seemed at this time as if Jehovah was about .to lose the people of His covenant and as if the line of the holy seed was to be discontinued. But if this were so, the entire counsel of salvation would fail. For what was the case? Israel bore in its loins the Holy Seedpar excellence. Israel was to bring forth the Great Son of David that was to sit upon his throne forever. Theline of the holy seed, historically present in Israel only, was to culminate in the Messiah, in Jesus Christ. If, therefore, Israel is to be cast away, is not to be accepted again, is to die in its iniquity, the Seed of the woman shall not be born. And the counsel of salvation as it had been announced in paradise would fail of realization. There the Lord had spoken: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed, it shall bruise thy head and thou shalt bruise its heel.” But that Word of God could never be realized if Israel were not delivered. For years it seemed as if the covenant people were lost. For decades it seemed as if that Word of God would fail, and as if Jehovah would have no people. But now the prophet must bring the message of deliverance to that people. He must preach salvation to them again. He must bring the message of grace. He must comfort the people of God and tell them that their warfare is accomplished and their iniquity pardoned and atoned. And, therefore, the line of God’s covenant is to be continued. The Word of the Lord shall not fail. A word of joy and redemption may be preached to the people of God, and through the ages it shall resound: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Her warfare is accomplished. Her iniquity is pardoned. Her deliverance is near.
I.That is Word of our God, this message of salvation, this counsel of redemption is imperishable, cannot fail, shall surely be realized is emphasized strongly in the text. Not only is this positively expressed, but it is stressed by means of a contrast employed. The eternal, ever enduring, powerful Word of God is contrasted to flesh and its goodliness. The latter is as the grass and as the beauty of the flower. It flourisheth, it standeth in the splendor of its beauty for a moment. But it perisheth and fades away.
What does the prophet mean when he refers to the passing nature of flesh? Does he merely wish to draw a contrast between the eternal nature of God, standing above the changing times and seasons, and the fleeting character of all that is called creature? Thus it appears sometimes in Holy Writ. The author of Psalm XC draws this contrast beautifully. God is from everlasting to everlasting. He was before the mountains were born. A thousand years are to Him as a watch in the night when it is past. But the people, and the generations of the children of men
are like the grass, their days are as a tale that is told. Soon the days of man are cut off and he flies away. In that psalm, therefore, the contrast is drawn between the ever-abiding Jehovah and the fleeting creature. But in our text, it seems to us, there is more implied. The message the prophet must deliver implies that all human attempts for the salvation of man and of the world are vain and futile. And, moreover, that all the attempts of flesh to counteract and oppose the counsel of God are vain. This is plain from the contrast. Flesh and its goodliness are here employed in contrast with the Word of our God. That Word of God aims at salvation. It promises deliverance. From the days of old it claimed that the works of darkness would be destroyed, the head of the serpent crushed, God’s people saved, redeemed to glory, and all the works of God’s hands would ultimately praise Him. But over against this Word stands flesh. Human power, human might, keenness of insight, wisdom and reason, philosophy and science; human counsel and device as it stands alone, separate from God and over against Him. All that is purely human, nothing but human, solely human is implied in this word flesh. Man is his own strength pretends to save the people and the world. Man in his own wisdom, apart from the Wisdom of God, claims to solve the world’s problems. Still more. This human power and might, this human wisdom and insight ventures to oppose the counsel of God, to set aside God’s way of salvation, and pretends to know a better, a more efficient way than the way of grace. And now the message cries: All these human attempts at salvation shall fail! They may appear beautiful for a while. They may seem as if flesh will be victorious and the Word of our God shall fail. The contrary is true. All these humanistic attempts shall terminate in complete failure. They are like grass and like the flower of the field. Their beauty shall fade, their strength shall perish. Surely, the people is grass.
Understood in this light the words of our text are of great significance for our own age. It is doubtful whether there ever was a period in history so dominated by the spirit of humanism as our own. The last few years have manifested that spirit in all its boldness. It is through human counsel and human effort that the world is to be saved and the Kingdom to be established. The gospel of Golgotha and of Joseph’s garden has been replaced by that of a humanistic, evolutionistic philosophy. Man is not inherently sinful. He is not naturally corrupt, He is not in himself guilty and condemned. On the contrary, he is inherently good. He admittedly did not as yet reach the highest stage of evolution. He must be improved. But great opportunities he offers in his very nature. What we must have is not the old blood theology, that makes man totally depraved, presses him down to a condition whence he cannot save himself, and casts him upon the blood of the cross for his only salvation. What must be preached is that man is capable of great things, that his case and that of the world is not hopeless, that he must follow the example of the Man of Galilee. What we must do is combine all the forces of mankind in state, church, and society. With united effort we must labor for the uplifting of society, for the betterment of the world, for the welfare of mankind. Jesus simply gave us a program to be worked out. That program must, at least in part, be realized. And a glorious future is waiting us and all the world. The glorious millennium of peace and righteousness will presently be ushered in!
My text warns: “All flesh is as grass!” All these purely humanistic attempts shall fail. All these human counsels that aim ate the salvation of the world apart from the Word of God and the blood of Golgotha shall prove vain and futile. And today we may witness the truth of these words. If it is true that there never was an age in which human power did so assert itself for the salvation of the world as our own, it is also true that there never was a time in which things did look so dark. Even the most persistent optimists are today wavering in their hopes. The war has not brought the glorious age of freedom and democracy that was promised. Peace, though formally concluded because of the exhaustion of the nations, is more remote than ever. Hatred and jealousy, greed and envy are being nourished in the heart of humanity. The millennium is not in sight. The social problems become more involved as the days go by. Dissatisfaction, restlessness, unrighteousness, and avarice come to manifestation day by day. Never have things looked more hopeless from a purely humanistic point of view than in our own time. And although there still are prophets that are persistent in their predictions of a better age to come, nowhere is the man that shows us clearly the way to this glorious future. Surely, our time preaches the realization of this message: All flesh is grass and the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field!
Over against this passing word of man stands the Word of our God, enduring and imperishable. The Word of God shall stand! The original may very appropriately be translated: The Word of our God shall rise forever! The counsel of God’s salvation, revealed in the Word of redemption shall rise again and again in history till it shall find eternal rest in the glorious Kingdom of our. Lord! Sometimes it may seem as if that Word were defeated. Fears may rise up in our bosom that the Word of God shall rise no more. Fact is, that again and again it rises, rises in ever greater splendor of strength till all opposition shall have been crushed and it shall stand without being disputed and opposed. Ultimately, in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ it shall be fully accomplished and shall stand unchallenged.
And why shall it stand and rise ever again? Because it is the Word of God. That God is eternal and so is His Word. From all eternity He planned His counsel for the redemption of all things, for the gathering of all things in Christ Jesus our Lord. As the eternal counsel of God that Word stands back of all the attempts of Satan and hell to frustrate it. Nothing is from that counsel excluded. Nothing takes that eternal Word by surprise. It may seem often as if the devil, sin, and death successfully oppose it. And, in fact, it is the intention of the Evil One to frustrate that Word of God. This constitutes his terrible guilt. But fact is, that also the counsel of the Wicked One, the attempts of the devil and all that stand on his side will ultimately prove to have contributed td the realization of that eternal Word. That Word shall stand, because it is the counsel of the Almighty God. He is never separated from His Word. He does not leave the realization of that Word of redemption to another. He Himself is in His Word. He Himself realizes it, accomplishes it to its ultimate perfection. Against Him nothing can prevail. And, therefore, that Word shall stand forever! What a beautiful word of comfort! A word of comfort and joy at least, if by faith we appropriate this word of our text and say: this God, whose Word shall stand is our God. For, then and then alone do we take courage in the midst of the world. And though times may be dark and conditions seem hopeless, we know that the Word of our God, the counsel of redemption in which also we have a place by grace, shall rise again and again and ultimately appear in glory everlasting!
Also this truth has often been illustrated in the history of the world. How often was the firmness of that Word of our God tested! How often did flesh rise up against it! It rose up against it when Cain killed Abel. It rose up against it in the period before the flood, when finally the Word of God was represented only in the family of Noah. It rose up against it when that wicked instrument of the devil, Pharaoh, made the deliberate attempt to destroy the holy seed in the land of Egypt. All through the history of the people of Israel in the land of promise did flesh rise up against the Word of God. Nations combined against it. Babylon gained renown in this respect. And dark it looked for the Word of God at the time when the prophet is called to preach comfort and deliverance to the remnant of God’s people. And, last but not least, flesh rose up against the Word of God and His counsel of redemption when the powers of hell and the powers of the world combined against God and the holy child Jesus. Then especially the battle raged fiercely between flesh and the Word of God. And the end seemed victory for flesh. The Word of God is downed, killed, stored away in the grave of Joseph’s garden!
But the Word of God always arose again. It appeared again and again and proved unconquerable. It appeared in Seth after Abel. It continued in Shem after the flood. It arose in Abraham and Israel. It appeared in the remnant that were delivered from the land of their captivity, to whom it was preached that their warfare was accomplished and their sins atoned for. It reached its realization in Bethlehem, the Word become flesh, Immanuel, God with us, the culmination of the holy line. It arose and stood in glory, victorious over flesh on the morning of the resurrection. In principle that Word of our God has overcome already. And though also in the new dispensation the powers of earth and hell may rage to prevent the full realization of that Word of God, nevertheless, we have the sure promise that this Word shall stand forever! The day is coming that all shall have been accomplished and the counsel of God, the Word of Jehovah shall have rest and stand unchallenged in the eternal kingdom! Surely, vain is flesh and vain are they that put their trust in human power and counsel. But safe and secure are they whose trust is in the Word of our God. They shall not perish, but like that Word they shall stand forever.
III. That, then, is the message the prophet must bring, and that is also the message the ambassador of Christ in the new dispensation must bring to the church of God in the midst of the world. He must preach then Word of God. He must bring a word of comfort and salvation, of grace and deliverance to Jerusalem, speaking to the heart of Zion. And concerning that Word of the Lord he must say, that it shall stand forever, and that all flesh shall fail and prove futile.
He must speak. It is not left to his own choice whether he will bring that Word of our God. On the contrary, the voice comes with the command: Cry! There is no choice left. The prophet of the Lord cannot at will choose another vocation. It is not thus that he himself decides to deliver that Word. He is called by the Lord God, and, therefore, he must bring that Word. He is constrained to comfort God’s people, to bring the message of salvation, to cry out that all flesh is grass and all the goodliness thereof as the flower of the field, perishable and passing, but that the Word of our God abideth forever. He, therefore, does not derive the contents of his message from any other source. It is not man that calls him. It is not his own mind that teaches him. It is the Most High that calls him, and no other business he has than to proclaim what the Lord enjoins him to preach. He must condemn the attempts of flesh and uphold the certainty of the Word of our God.
He must cry! It is by no means indifferent to our God how His Word is delivered. The prophet must not merely learn it by heart and dryly, unconcernedly repeat it. He must not whisper it timidly. He must not sing it pleasantly. The command as to the mode of its proclamation is definitely: Cry! And this suggests three ideas. In the first place it informs us that the ambassador of God both in the old and in the new dispensation must bring the message of God to Zion clearly and distinctly. Whatever is cried out is clear and distinct to all. And thus the Word of God must be cried out. It must be preached clearly. There must be nothing ambiguous, nothing hesitant, nothing uncertain about its contents. The audience must understand clearly what the preacher means. In the second place, it suggests that the message must be delivered with bold emphasis. The preacher must insist upon a hearing like one that cries. He must not allow himself to be silenced; He must not fear public opinion. That is not characteristic of one that cries out. He must be bold. Neither the world, nor all the powers of the world combined, neither the disobedient among God’s own people may intimidate him. Persistently he must cry: All flesh is grass but the Word of our God abideth forever! And finally, it suggests that the ambassador of Christ must be a living witness. A cry rises from the heart, is living testimony. One who mechanically repeats a message does not cry. He that cries out is enthusiastic about the message he brings. Thus, then, it is with regard to the preacher of the Word. Christ did not order a million phonographs to propagate the gospel. He did not invent the printing press to print and scatter dead tracts. He commanded living witnesses to go out into the world and cry out: All flesh is grass and the goodliness thereof as the flower of the field. But the Word of our God abideth forever. It shall rise and rise. It shall prove victorious again and again. It shall ultimately stand realized in glory!
Thus, beloved, I conceive of my task in your midst. To this task I pledged myself when I entered first upon the ministry of the Word. To this task I pledged myself anew when last Tuesday evening I was connected with the Eastern Ave. congregation. I am aware of my own weakness. The task incumbent upon me, which I am constrained to perform, is a difficult one, in my own strength quite impossible of execution. But our help is in the name of the Lord. Weak in our own strength we are strong in the Lord. Timid by nature we are bold in Him. And, therefore, in His name we assume the task of delivering this twofold message. We will proclaim that all flesh is grass. We will witness against the attempts of human strength. And we will maintain that the Word of our God and it only stands forevermore! To young and old, at all occasions we shall deliver that message alone. Do not ask anything else. And the more persistently the world intrudes upon us with its arm of flesh, the more loudly and clearly, the more distinctly and boldly we shall in the name of the Lord of hosts cry out: Only the Word of the Lord standeth forever. In it alone is all our salvation!