Mr. Chairman, Fathers and Brethren of the Synod, Graduate Decker, Brethren and Sisters in the Lord:
This is a happy occasion for the graduate, for, our churches, and for, our school and its faculty: for the graduate, because it means that he has successfully completed his years of preparation and may now look forward to a place in the Lord’s vineyard; for our churches, because we now have another candidate to take his place in the ranks of our ministers; and for our school and its faculty, because there is a kind of special “professorial” delight in seeing a young man finish his training and attain the status of candidate for the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.
Yet this occasion is not one untinged by a certain sadness which I personally, and we all, cannot help feeling. For this is the first graduation of our Theological School at which the entire original faculty of our school is missing. That sadness and its reasons are not merely a matter of loving sentiment and esteem, but a matter of very serious moment for our school and our churches. This, among other factors, suggested to me my subject for this occasion:
Living From The Past
I. A Historical Necessity
II. An Urgent Calling
III. An Only Possibility
A Historical Necessity
It is a general phenomenon of the history of God’s cause in the midst of the world that it runs from generation to generation. Moreover, it is also a general phenomenon of that history that as it runs from generation to generation, it is characterized by alternating periods of strength and weakness, of faithfulness and apostasy. There are certaingenerations of God’s people which as generations are God-fearing. There is knowledge of the Lord among them. The truth of the Word of God is maintained strictly and faithfully. There is a consistent walking in the way of Jehovah and in His fear and according to His precepts. There are other generations which as generations are characterized by spiritual ignorance, by indifference toward the truth, by apostasy, and by worldly-mindedness.
These are general phenomena which characterize the history of God’s people in the midst of the world.
Thus it was in the old dispensation with Israel. Compare, for example, the period of Joshua and his generation with the immediately following era of the Judges. The former was a spiritually strong, God-fearing generation; in the latter you can at times hardly recognize God’s people. Or compare, if you will, the period of David-Solomon with the immediately following generation of Jeroboam, when a large part of Israel vowed that they had no part with David’s house, or with the somewhat later generation of the time of Elijah, when one might well be led to ask the question, “Hath God cast away His people?”
Nor is it any different in the new dispensation. Make a comparison between the church of apostolic times and the church of the Dark Ages, and the contrast is immediately obvious. Or compare the glorious period of the Reformation of the sixteenth century with the dismal period of dead orthodoxy and rationalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, what is true of the church quite in general has frequently been true of one generation in comparison with another, of one period in comparison with another, within, a particular church or denomination.
The question is: wherein does this variation from period to period and from generation to generation consist? What is implied in it?
It certainly does not mean that in a certain generation or period all the individual members of the church are spiritual seed, or that even, the majority of them are. This is never the case historically. It was not even true of that outstanding and strong generation of Joshua’s time. Even at that time there were apparently strange gods among the children of Israel, according to Joshua’s farewell address. And thus it has always been among God’s people in their generations. No generation is wholly pure. In no period are all spiritual seed. No reformation is ever wholly pure and without its strange fire on the altar. But in the case of a generation or period that is particularly noted for being God-fearing and strong you will find that the spiritual element is dominating. It is in control. This is partly because the spiritual element is comparatively strong in numbers, as, for example, in Joshua’s time, after Israel had passed through the fiery trial of God’s judgments in the wilderness and thousands upon thousands of carnal Israelites had been purged away. This is partly due to the historical circumstance which you often find at such a time, that such a generation (as, again, in Joshua’s time) are eyewitnesses of the great works of the Lord. And it is partly due to another historical circumstance that frequently marks such periods and such generations, namely, that God gives to certain generations men of influence. He gives them His servants, influential men who fear Him. Thus it was also in that ancient generation to which I have several times referred: the Lord gave them a Joshua, an Eleazar, a Caleb, and God-fearing elders and chief men among the tribes.
But the time comes when such God-fearing generations pass away and pass from the scene of history.
Thus it was in Israel’s history at the time of Joshua. Joshua himself died. And his was the best epitaph that could be written of a man; and it is given him by the Word of God: he was the “servant of the Lord.” Eleazar, the third son of Aaron, high priest, divider of the land along with Joshua, a man of high station and influence among the children of Israel, also died. And the elders, who were not merely older men; but who were princes, chief men, and judges among the tribes,—they all died sooner or later.
Thus it is in our own history and in our own churches. The generation,—the God-fearing generation,—that were eyewitnesses of the Lord’s work in our own history at the time of our origin as churches is fast disappearing from the scene gone. Rev. Ophoff is The Lord has removed Rev. Hoeksema from active service through the infirmities of sickness and old age. Many others of that generation have passed away. The generation that were but young men and children in 1924 has to a large extent taken the place of that eyewitness generation. And, in fact, a third generation, a generation that were only children and teen-agers in the history of 1953 is already arising in order to take its place in the churches. Our graduate tonight represents that third generation already!
In close connection with all this stands a third phenomenon, namely: the phenomenon of the progressive realization of God’s work of the realization of His promise and His covenant and kingdom.
Centrally and principally, of course, all the work of God is finished. It has been finished in and through Jesus Christ our Lord. That was not the case in Joshua’s time. The Gospel in Joshua ends in death. That is the close of the book of Joshua: death! The ruler died. The bones of Joseph are buried. The priest died. And they are all buried in the typical land of rest. The covenant was not realized. Salvation had not been accomplished. Everything was typical. The work of God in the establishment and realization of His covenant, according to the promise, was not finished. But in Christ Jesus our Lord all is finished. The gospel is finished. Salvation is finished. In the old dispensation they waited for the better Mediator to come. And Christ is the answer to that waiting; He is the fulfillment. And therefore the close of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not death, but life through death! And, all the work of God has been centrally and principally finished in the coming and death and resurrection and exaltation .of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church in the new dispensation, therefore, possesses the full revelation of the gospel, the whole of the truth of salvation, in the Scriptures.
Nevertheless the full and complete and final historical realization of what has been centrally and principally accomplished in Christ Jesus remains to be accomplished. The church, the body of Christ, must be gathered. The truth of the gospel must be preserved and developed in all its riches. And it must be transmitted. All of this is done progressively, from generation to generation. There is continuity in the work of God. God does not work sporadically. He does not begin a new His work of grace in each generation all by itself. He does not work here in one generation and there in an entirely separate generation. There is nothing aphoristic about the work of God. The Lord our God accomplishes His work progressively and with continuity from generation to generation. This is simply a fact of history. It is an axiom with respect to God’s work.
An Urgent Calling
From the phenomena mentioned there follows a very urgent calling for the church and the people of God. That calling is to live from the past.
Let me explain both negatively and positively what is implied in this.
There are three possibilities confronting the church in this connection.
The first is to live in separation from the past, to divorce ourselves from the past. I can best illustrate this by calling your attention to a very sad example of apostasy in Old Testament history. I refer to the example of the generation following Joshua. You read .in Scripture that Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders that outlived Joshua. That is the nation as a whole (not meaning, remember, every individual) served the Lord and walked in the ways of Jehovah. Thus you find it in Joshua 24:31: “And Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders that overlived Joshua, and which had known all the works of the Lord, that he had done for Israel.” But the very next generation departed already! This is indeed hinted at in the text just quoted. And it is confirmed in Judges 2:10, at the conclusion of a passage parallel to that in Joshua: “And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” The situation, therefore, was that there was only a remnant according to the election of grace, both in Joshua’s generation and the generation following. That is always true. And there was present a large element of the carnal seed. That carnal element had been purged out in the wilderness. But it was always present. And it gradually increased and gained in strength and finally gained the upper hand, the dominion, in Israel. Hence, there was a period of sad apostasy.
But there was a historical reason. That next generation, according to Scripture, knew not the Lord, neither the works that the Lord had done for Israel! This is very significant. It simply means that that generation did not live from the past! They lived in separation from the past. They were divorced from the past. You see, there is a relation here of cause and effect. That generation did not know the Lord’s works for Israel; and not knowing the Lord’s works for Israel, they did not know the Lord; and not knowing the Lord, they did not serve the Lord. They became apostate!
There is a second possibility which in a way is the very opposite of the one just mentioned. That is to live inthe past. And it is as wrong and as fatal as the first possibility.
This involves being rather well acquainted with the past. We know all about the Lord’s work in the past. In fact, we revel in it, and we boast in it. And we are filled with a certain nostalgia. We long to bring back the memories of the past, and we long for “the good old days;” But in the meantime we blandly and blindly and blissfully ignore the present and the peculiar problems and calling of the present that are all about us and pressing in upon us.
That attitude is a very, very serious mistake. It is a mistake for the very obvious and simple reason that it is unrealistic! It is not really possible to live in the past. We are not in the past but in the present. The “good old days” are gone, and they can never be brought back. 1924, for example, cannot be brought back and re-lived. The past is gone, though not forgotten. However, it is possible to do in our thoughts and in our imagination what is in reality impossible. We canattempt unrealistically to live that past all over again. And this has very bad results. The result is the tendency to rest on our laurels, to boast vainly of that past, to claim that we are in the present Reformed and that we are Protestant Reformed simply by virtue of that past. And that is certainly not true. Our past alone does not guarantee that we are Reformed; the question is what we ourselves are in the present! But in that attitude of nostalgia we reminisce concerning that past, and we long for that past, and we fight all the battles of the past over again. And the result is what is called dead orthodoxy, confessionalism, doctrinal and spiritual stagnation, and polemicism. The result is also that you finally lose that past itself, and eventually a generation arises that out of sheer revulsion rejects that past and repudiates it. There was a good deal of that attitude in the period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not long after the Reformation. And in our own Reformed history there was a very sad instance of that attitude that resulted in polemicism and confessionalism and dead orthodoxy in the Netherlands in the generations that arose after the Synod of Dordrecht.
In distinction from the two possible attitudes already mentioned, there is the urgent calling to live from the past.
What is implied in this?
In the first place, it implies that we are thoroughly acquainted with the past. We must know our historical roots. We must never forget the past. We must have long memories in the good sense of the word. We must not forget 1953, and we must not forget 1924, and we must not forget 1886, and we must not forget 1857, and we must not forget 1834, and we must not forget Dordrecht, and we must not forget the Reformation, and we must not forget all of the past of the history of God’s church in the midst of the world, back all the way to the Scriptures and to sacred history. This is crucial. For in the sound sense of the word we are indeed children of the past!
In the second place, it is crucial not only that we are thoroughly acquainted with the past, but also that we know and discern in that past the works of the Lord for His church. This means, first of all, that we are cognizant of the fact that the Lord gave us a heritage, a very precious heritage: the heritage of the truth in its clearest glory, the truth, very briefly put, that GOD IS GOD! Secondly, it means that we are very keenly aware that this is the Lord’s work, His work for Israel, the church. This is the significant thing about our past in the last analysis. Our heritage did not simply cometo us from the past. It is certainly not the work of men, mere men. The Lord has wrought for us. We are what we are just exactly because of the Lord’s work through all the ages of the past down to the present moment. If that is not true, and if we do not understand this and are not keenly aware, of it, then we may better quit as churches! I mean that in all seriousness! If our heritage is not the heritage of the truth in its clearest glory, and if in our Protestant Reformed Churches there is not represented the mighty works of the Lord for Israel, then by all means we should give up and quit,—lest haply we should be found fighting against God, beloved! Thirdly, this knowledge and discernment of the works of the Lord involves this, that we know and understand that the seriousness and urgency of our position and calling arises precisely from the fact that the Lord has wrought for us. That makes our position deadly serious, and it makes our calling as important and urgent as any calling can possibly be!
In the third place, to live from the past implies that we can and do understand our present position in the light of our past. We must have a very strong and clear sense of history. This is true, in the first place, certainly because of the lessons to be learned and the experience to be gained and the warnings to be taken from history. In a certain sense it is true that history repeats itself. As the Dutch saying has it (in translation): “In the past lies the present; in the ‘now’ the ‘what-shall-be.'” But, in the second place, there is a much more fundamental aspect to this matter. We cannot possibly understand our present position from the point of view of its contents, we cannot understand our heritage, except in the light of the past. That was true already in Israel’s case in the generation following Joshua. That new generation could not understand their position except in the light of Joshua’s times. They could not answer the questions, who they were, why they were in the land of Canaan, and what was their purpose and their calling in the land of Canaan, except in the light of all the works of the Lord for Israel in the time of the conquest and before that. The same is true of the church in any age; and the same is true of our own churches. We cannot understand our heritage, we cannot understand our confessions, our polity, our liturgy, our theology, except in the light of the past. We cannot understand who we are, and why we are here, and why we are what we are, and what our calling and purpose is, except in the light of the past. We cannot understand our present position and calling as Protestant Reformed Churches, except in the light of the Reformation of the sixteenth century; we cannot understand it, except in the light of Calvin and Geneva; we cannot understand it, except in the light of Dordrecht, in the light of the Afscheiding, in the light of the Doleantie. We certainly cannot understand it, except in the light of the reformation of 1924, and, again, the reformation of 1953. The truth is that we of 1965 simply are not an isolated generation. And if we nevertheless attempt to live in such historical isolation, we become what may be termed a lost generation!
In the fourth place, living from the past implies that we live in the present and that we fulfill our present calling on the basis of and in the light of the past. The present is different than the past. We do not live in 1834 or in 1886 or in 1924, but in the year of our Lord 1965. And each generation as it takes its place upon the scene of history has its own problems, its own situation, its own conflicts, and its own peculiar calling. Each generation, therefore, has its peculiar calling to receive and to maintain and to defend and to develop the truth of the glorious heritage which the Lord has given His church, but has the calling to do so, not in isolation, nor as beginning anew, but as standing on the shoulders of the preceding generation, and that too, in the awareness of the fact that it represents the church of all ages, which has the promise of the Holy Spirit, Who has dwelt in the church and guided the church into all the truth to the present moment.
Such is the calling to live from the past.
Urgent is that calling.
From a positive point of view, the urgency of that calling speaks for itself. Its urgency is inherent in the very nature of the calling. In the deepest sense of the word, this urgency arises from the fact that our calling to live from the past is divine: it is of God!
But there is another aspect to this urgency. The carnal seed is always present in the church; and that carnal seed always develops and increases and strives to gain dominion in the church. Besides, the lie always makes its appearance wherever the truth is revealed. That lie is old, almost as old as the truth. And it always appears as essentially the same lie, though in new forms, new and more deceptive forms. Still more: especially our age is characterized increasingly by a refusal to live from the past and by a repudiation of the past. This is true in the church at large; and it is true in the Reformed community. A generation arises that knows not the Lord and His work, that calls in question almost every important truth of our heritage, that considers our heritage in the confessions out-dated, that removes the “old landmarks,” that is “ecumenicity-mad.”
Urgent indeed, therefore, is our calling to live, not in separation from the past, nor in the past, but from the past!
How is that possible? Fundamentally, beloved, there is but one answer to that question: grace, pure, sovereign grace! You cannot stand; and I cannot stand. We cannot possibly remain faithful in our own strength. We are absolutely dependent upon God’s grace. Let us remember that. If we ever attempt to stand in our own strength, we will surely fall!
But remember, too, that God’s grace operates through means, through God’s own ordained means.
This implies that living from the past is possible only in the way of faithful instruction from generation to generation. How does it happen that a generation can arise that knows not the Lord and His wonderful works? Only through a failure to instruct! We must instruct through the preaching of the Word. For through the Word purely preached the Lord and His works for His people are revealed. That truth of the Word, therefore, as we have received it in the line of generations must be maintained by the church in the generation that fears the Lord. And that truth must be transmitted to the generation to come, so that they in turn are equipped to live from the past. We must instruct in our Seminary, whose very purpose is the maintenance and continuance of the ministry of the Word in our midst. We must instruct in our catechism classes, in our day schools, in our publications.
Along with that instruction goes the exercise of discipline. We must exercise discipline positively by exhorting one another, lest we fall asleep! And we must exercise discipline negatively by expelling the evil and the evildoer from our midst.
In conclusion, therefore, let us watch and pray. Let us understand our calling and accomplish it,—lest it ever be said of our generations to come, “They knew not the Reformed truth, neither the work that the Lord did for them!”
May the Lord give us grace to be faithful to our calling. May He give that grace to our candidate as presently he labors in the ministry; and may He give that grace to all of us.
* Rectoral Address by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema at the graduation exercises of the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, June 8, 1965.