(Editor’s Note: At our last annual staff meeting it was decided to introduce a new department in our Standard Bearer which would feature worthwhile articles from early volumes of our magazine which are no longer available to most of our readers. It was felt that there were a goodly number of such articles which would also be pertinent today. Besides, many such articles in our early days appeared in the Holland language, which most of our readers are unable to read today. The committee appointed to take care of this department has chosen as the first feature a series of articles by the Rev. H. Hoeksema which originally appeared thirty-seven years ago under the heading, “Voortgaande Reformatie,” that is, “On-Going (or: Continuing) Reformation.” There were four articles in this series, some of which were considerably longer than today’s average article. These will appear serially in several installments. Our thanks to the committee, Rev. M. Schipper and Prof. H. Hanko, and to the translator, who, wishes to remain anonymous. HCH)
Is there any increase?
Are we growing? Are we becoming larger as churches?
These are questions not seldom asked, also among us, when men would like to know whether the cause of the Lord as we are called to represent it is making good progress. If only these questions can be answered affirmatively, then there is joy and good courage for the future; if, however, the answer must be negative, or if the answer must be that we lose members now and then, that there are also those who in time reveal themselves as never having been of us, then faces fall and men appear inclined to hang their harps upon the willows.
Now it is very well possible that these questions harbor an element of sound and genuine interest.
Whoever believes that with regard to the. Three Points the Christian Reformed Churches have truly departed from the truth of God’s Word and of the Reformed confession; whoever also trusts that there continue to be many in those Churches who, in the final analysis, continue to love the Reformed truth,—these must surely long prayerfully that the Lord may not only open their eyes but also give them the courage of faith no longer to remain responsible for what has been done by those Churches, both from the viewpoint of the trampling under foot of justice and from the viewpoint of the violation of the truth of, God. And whoever inquires whether the churches are growing with that prayerful longing in the heart surely reveals a sincere interest in the cause of the Lord.
But the fear is not ungrounded that such questions arise sometimes out of a less spiritual interest, are asked out of the desire to become big again, also according to the standard of the world, out of the desire to develop power and have a name.
The desire for external growth is imbedded” in us, in our bone and marrow.
It has been one of the causes of the deterioration of the Christian Reformed Churches.
This applies, for example, to their school. They wanted to expand and become great. They wanted to grow according to the standard of the world. Large buildings had to be built. Much money had to be spent for external greatness. People even spoke of a million dollar endowment fund. The instruction must become more and more scientific! They sought acknowledgement by the world. They were proud of the fact that young men who had studied for a time in the school of the Churches now sought further training in institutions of unbelief and won laurels in those schools, But the necessity of holding fast to principle and of developing that principle more and more, of being distinctive in faith and confession, of maintaining the principle of spiritual isolation, was forgotten; whoever spoke of it was not infrequently tolerated with a kind of compassionate disdain!
But—let us not forget this—that desire for outward greatness is also in our blood.
It is one of the traits of our sinful nature to want to judge things according to the standard of external glory, to want to evaluate also the Church of the Lord according to the number of members, to “weigh it by the pound.”
This we may never do.
To long for growth from such motives is sin before God. And the striving which arises out of such a sinful desire for greatness, soon brings us again into misery, contributes immediately again to the ruin of the Churches.
The chief question is not: is there any increase?
This applies also to my garden: often there is considerable growth. And if it be merely a matter of satisfying the -eye. then one would be inclined to say that this garden is in a prosperous condition when everything .grows luxuriantly. But if I do not maintain daily watch over it, to pull out undesirable growth, then the fruit chokes among the weeds. It is good that there is increase, provided that the increase is good.
It is, and ever remains, the chief question: is there spiritual growth? Is there a holding fast to principle? Do our Churches stand firmly for the truth of God in doctrine and in life? Gideon also had assembled a considerable army. With such a mighty army one could attack the Midianites and put the battle in array with results. But alas! When it was proclaimed throughout the host that the timid and faint-hearted might remain behind and depart for the mountains of Gilead, then the mighty army shrank to one-third its size. And when the remaining ten thousand men were led to the water and given the opportunity to refresh themselves with a cooling drink, it appeared that there were only three hundred who did not give themselves time to rest upon their knees to lick up the water with their tangy! And only three hundred men were finally called to wield the sword of the Lord and of Gideon against Midian!
The Lord does not will any greatness.
He glorifies Himself in that which is small and insignificant.
Also we as Churches may never forget this. And instead of always and again inquiring whether there is any increase, it could be profitable for us also to stop and consider the necessity of continuing Reformation.
Immediately after a tense period of battle and struggle, such as we experienced when a place was no longer granted us within the Christian Reformed Churches, people are inclined, out of reaction, to rest on their laurels, imagining that the battle has been won once and for all, and acting as though the ideal of a pure Church has finally been reached. Whoever takes such a view of things is nevertheless mistaken. And bitter disappointment must certainly soon follow upon such an expectation.
Fact is that there is a continuous deformation and degeneration of the Churches. This is inevitable; it can never be avoided.
Such a process of deformation has also been in operation among us from the very beginning, and it became manifest in various ways.
There are various causes of this phenomenon that may be cited.
First of all, the phenomenon asserts itself that in every Reformation-movement many go along who do not carry the principle of such a reformation in their heart. They go along for various reasons and out of widely divergent motives, which, however, generally concentrate about their own “I.” It was thus with the departure of the Israelites out of Egypt. A mixed multitude went along with Israel. And it is conceivable that Moses later often wished that many of them had drowned in the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his host. This was also true of David when he had been anointed king and was fleeing before the face of Saul. Whoever had a grievance joined his band. It has been ever thus. This was also true of us. How often this has become evident in the past! Oh, how many could we not mention who seemed to be full of enthusiasm for the cause of the Lord, who joined us of their own volition, went along with us when we were cast out of the Christian Reformed Churches, but whose fervor was not rooted in proper principle, and before long appeared false! The one “had sought it everywhere” and believed that now he had finally found it; but soon he discovered his mistake. Another imagined that he would be a far greater man in a small and insignificant group than in the midst of a great multitude; he longed to be a big frog in a small pond; but when even in that small pond they gave no heed to his tremendous croaking, he soon left, greatly disappointed. A third had a delusion that he had to preach, and he saw the opportunity of becoming a preacher among us. A fourth desired the exercise of the ministry (oefenen); a fifth was so determined to be an elder that he even voted for himself (he had all the votes); a sixth was simply a windbag, who had need of a new movement now and then, in order to rid himself of some wind if he were not to burst; a seventh.. . . But why mention more? We know them by experience in the short history which now lies behind us,—those who sought their own “I,” who had the most to say for a while, but who then would destroy the cause of the Lord when they were not flattered sufficiently.
In the second place, we must not forget that there is always an element which joins our churches, but which is not prompted by principle. When men are in difficulty with others (we do not now refer to those who are oppressed in a righteous cause), then it is so easy that there is still another church which they can join. Or people will establish relations with others, outside of our churches, and these latter will then affiliate with us. It cannot possibly be avoided that also among them who join us from without there will always be found those who do not actually understand the issue, those for whom it was never a matter of principle. And however we may rejoice when the Lord open the eyes of others and moves them to join us, we must never forget that also in this respect it is true that all that glitters is not gold.
In the third place, there is the undeniable fact that also from within the carnal seed always springs up; branches shoot forth on the vine which never bring forth fruit. All is not Israel that is called Israel. It was thus in the old dispensation; it is thus today. The line of election and reprobation runs directly through the historical line of the generations of the covenant; and always it makes separation. A two-fold seed will always grow up in the midst of the Church of Christ. And not seldom the relation is such that the carnal seed grows and develops much more abundantly than the spiritual. The Church is always corrupted, not only from without but also from within. There is always the development of an element whereby the process of deformation enters into the church and comes to manifestation.
In the fourth place, in explanation of this phenomenon of continuous deformation and degeneration, this falling away and decline of the Church, we must also not forget this, that among the believers even the very holiest has but a small principle of this obedience. The old power of sin, it is true, has been broken in principle; but it has not been completely rooted out. There is also with believers, with those who really joined us out of principle, or those who grow up in the midst of the Church as the true seed of Israel,—there is always a strong inclination to go along with the world. The desire to be great according to the standard of the world plays an important role with them. Or they permit themselves to be lulled to sleep at their post. They do not always watch and pray. They permit themselves to be swept along with those who would deliver the Church over unto the world. They do not protest when the carnal element in the Church sits upon the throne, takes over, would enforce its will. And thus they cooperate in the degeneration of the Churches in doctrine and in life, in discipline and in the worship services.
And if, finally, we add to this that the Church of Christ is called to live in the midst of the world, that the enemynever sleeps, that Satan goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, that the world seduces, offers to the Church its sham beauty, sings its siren song, allures and threatens, and that the power of the temptation of sin is great, then we can understand that the danger of deformation always threatens the Church; in fact, the process of degeneration and decay is ever present.
(to be continued)