(Note: This is the third installment of a translation of a series of articles by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema on the subject, “Voortgaande Reformatie,” written thirty-seven years ago.)
Reformation of the Churches always has two sides, should always manifest those two aspects in order that it may really be Reformation in the full and good sense of the word.
It has a positive and a negative side.
It is strengthening and upbuilding, as well as combative and demolishing. It is a mortification of the wrong and sinful life in the bosom of the Churches; but it is also, and not less, an enlivening of the life of the Spirit in the Body of Christ.
It is, therefore, not unlike the conversion of a child of God. This consists, as the Heidelberg Catechism describes it, in the two parts of the quickening of the new man and the mortification of the old man: two aspects of the one, true conversion to God which are inseparably connected with each other. You never find the one without the other. The mortification of the old man without the quickening of the new man is inconceivable. Nor can you conceive of a quickening of the new man which is not accompanied by a mortification of the old man. The first, the quickening of the new man, does not consist in an ever-continuing process of regeneration: for there always remains, also in him who has advanced farthest on the way of conversion and sanctification and who therefore would have the right to the name of “holiest,” only a small beginning of the obedience in Christ. But it consists in a sincere joy in God through Christ, through which the child of God becomes ever richer and stronger in the faith that he is a partaker of the everlasting benefits of salvation in Him, increasingly rejoices in his justification, his personal sonship, and in the forgiveness of sins; and that indeed in the way of a steadily growing love and delight to live not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God, and to be pleasing to Him. The new man in Christ arises, makes his influence more consciously experienced, and begins to dominate more and more the entire life of the child of God. And the mortification of the old man does not consist, as it is only too often presented, in a continuing process in which the child of God is increasingly rid of his old nature: for that old nature remains even until death, and he is not delivered from the body of this death until the moment when he dies. But it does consist in a becoming ever more keenly conscious of sin, and in a hearty sorrow that we have provoked the Lord God with our sins and continue to provoke Him; and this is accompanied by an ever stronger desire and mightier striving, with watching and prayer, to hate sin more and more and to flee from it.
The Christian, therefore, cannot be a perfectionist.
Perfection, the condition in which he is completely delivered from all the onslaughts of sin and of Satan, in which all struggle and strife have ceased, in which all watching and prayer against the powers of darkness have become unnecessary, the Christian does not expect on this side of the grave. He is and remains a fighting Christian, who always, again and again, puts on the whole armor of God, that he may wrestle against the powers of temptation in the world and in his own heart.
Now thus it is also with respect to the Reformation of the Churches.
He who understands things correctly does not expect here upon earth a perfect Church of perfect saints; he will be on his guard against separating himself from a certain manifestation of the Church in the midst of the world merely because he does not find perfection in its midst. Such a striving could only lead to Darbyism, or to the dream of the Labadists, whose ideal was to bring to manifestation a congregation of pure saints and perfect, regenerated people of God. Separatism and sectarianism is then the inevitable consequence. Those who hold such views then finally reject the Church, and they seek their strength in this, that they present the Church as bad and as corrupt as possible, in order then to await the coming of Christ as separate groups of saints who stand on a higher level.
With such fanaticism, which militates against Scripture and does not reckon with reality, the child of God who has a healthy and Scriptural conception of the Church militant does not go along. He does not expect a perfect Church upon earth any more than he expects a perfect Christian upon earth. And this is his outlook because of all the various factors which we summed up in our first article.
Precisely for this reason he considers Reformation of the Churches to be necessary, even as he considers continuous conversion necessary for the Christian personally.
But also that Reformation of the Churches always has two sides which are inseparably connected with one another, both of which are indispensable in all true Reformation.
Even as there is in the conversion of the individual child of God a quickening of the new man, so it also belongs to all Reformation of the Churches that there be upbuilding and strengthening, an awakening and a dominance of the life of the Spirit in the Church’s entire manifestation of life in the midst of the world, whereby the Church comes to know an ever more hearty joy in God through Christ, finds itself ever richer in Him, and ever more consciously appropriates to itself the blessings of salvation which are in Him. And all this is accompanied by an inner desire and an earnest striving to be pleasing unto the Lord and to proclaim His virtues in word and in walk. But to this belongs also the other side, which is comparable to the mortification of the old man in the Christian, and which consists herein, that in the life of the Church everything which is not of Christ, but which is of sin and of the world and of the devil is opposed, suppressed, purged out, and conquered.
This two-fold Reformation of the Churches thenpenetrates into and comes to manifestation in the entire life of the Church as such, in its living and in its formulated confession, in the exercise of Christian discipline and in church government, in its worship and its administration of the Word and of the sacraments,—everywhere that living power of a sound Reformation takes hold, with the result of an enlivening and upbuilding of that which is of Christ, and the expurgation and suppression, the condemnation and mortification of that which is of sin in its midst, which always and again reveals itself.
Neither of these two aspects of the Reformation of the Churches can ever be missed. Mere condemnation and combating of wrong elements is not enough.
It is indeed rather easy,—and this danger is also more than imaginary, to think in connection with the Reformation of the Churches solely of the negative side, to point to the manifestation of wrong elements, which must be condemned and rooted out. But a Church which does nothing else than this is doomed and dies. Positive upbuilding and continuous strengthening and development always constitute the chief element in the reformation of the Churches.
Emphasis, therefore, must always be laid upon both aspects. Only then does the Church show that it strives after genuine Reformation when the positive awakening and strengthening go hand in hand with the combating and the rooting out of evil.
Now we speak in the title above these essays of “On-Going Reformation.”
Reformation, we must remember, can take place in various ways, can assume widely different forms, although essentially it always remains the same and has the same end in view. In the first place, it can assume the form of secession.
And it always should assume this form as soon as it has become apparent that it is impossible to reform the Church within the Church.
It lies in the nature of the case that secession cannot and may not wait,—hence, historically also never has waited,—until a certain church communion h become in the absolute sense thefalse church.
Through such a waiting the Church would founder, would render its own reformation impossible.
Purposely we wish to call attention to this for a moment.
Many seem to be of the opinion that all separation must be condemned as long as one cannot say of a certain church communion that it has become entirely the false church.
And then the question arises: when has a church become the false church?
The answers to this question are widely divergent, and they are not infrequently controlled by the circumstances under which one is called upon to answer it. The marks of the true church are well known. They are the pure preaching of God’s Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. And therewith it is at the same time indicated how one may recognize the false church. Where the administration of the Word is not pure, where the sacraments are not administered according to that Word, and where the keys of the kingdom are no longer used, there you have the false church.
Nevertheless, the distinguishing marks of the true and of the false church are tolerably elastic when it comes to the practical application of them. There seem to be all kinds of degrees of difference in the trueness and the falseness of the Church on earth. If the Church only revealed itself definitely and fully as either the true or the false church, there would be no difficulty. If the case were only thus, that in the administration of the Word the Church either maintained the full truth or decisively and entirely rejected it, then it would be simple enough in actual practice. But such is not the case. Here one element, and there another element of the truth is denied; here the sacraments are changed into idolatry, and there you find open communion, and elsewhere their real sacramental character is denied. And inthe same way there are also varying degrees between the proper use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the persecution of true believers. And now everything depends upon which standard one applies in judging the Church in order to come to an answer to the question whether a certain church fellowship may be called true or false church. If you assume the broadest viewpoint, namely, that the true Church is always found yet where they still seek salvation in the blood of Christ, and where the cross of Christ is still preached in the administration of the Word, and if you also insist that secession is unjustified as long as there is yet but the weakest manifestation of the true Church, then it lies in the nature of the case that there will hardly ever be a secession which can pass the test of the Word of God. On this basis, one would never be permitted to secede and to form a new denomination where, for example, the doctrine of predestination is not purely preached or is even denied and opposed. They preach then, indeed, an atonement in the blood of Christ, but one which is dependent upon man’s choice of will as far as its application is concerned. And thus many elements of the truth could be denied before a secession would be justified before the tribunal of the Lord.
On this broad basis, one could not even call the Romish Church a false church.
And on this same basis one would be compelled to condemn the Secession (of 1834) and the Doleantiein the Netherlands.
A secession would not even be justified, for example, should a Reformed church lapse into Baptistic tendencies and refuse to baptize the seed of the covenant.
Practically, then, this position is untenable. Also here we shall have to hold to the position of our own confession. And then, for one who’s Reformed, nothing less than one’s own church is the true Church in the full sense of the word, that is, the purest manifestation of the Body of Christ. He does not intend to say thereby that only in his own Church the true believers are found. He does not mean thereby that all other church denominations are to be condemned and classified under the heading: the false church. But he certainly intends to maintain that in the measure that a certain Church departs from the Reformed administration of the Word and of the sacraments and from the Reformed view and maintenance of the key power, in that same measure such a Church also manifests the marks of the false church. He who proclaims the doctrine of free will departs from the truth; and a Church which in its ministry of the Word maintains and defends that doctrine manifests in that respect a mark of the false church. He who denies infant baptism and despises the covenant of God departs from God’s Word; and a Church which refuses to acknowledge the children of the Church as the seed of the covenant has become in that respect false Church. A Church which opens the table of the Lord to all and does not ban the ungodly from its midst has become false church with respect to Christian discipline. Along this line you can continue. And therefore, one who is Reformed can never do anything else with respect to this question than to stand upon the basis of his own confession and, judging accordingly, to follow up his calling to join himself to the purest manifestation of the Body of Christ.
Matters, however, do not stand thus, that the signal for secession must or may be given upon the very first manifestation of departure with respect to any point of the truth or in the life of the Church. This would lead, to separatism. The Church on earth is never perfect and is, therefore, always inclined to go astray. For this reason, then it is also always the calling of believers to oppose such departure, to pray against it, to fight against it, to reform the Church within the Church, as long as possible, to the very end, as long as there is any reason to hope for restoration. This is why we wrote that secession becomes our calling as soon as it appears impossible to reform the Church within the Church. When the wicked are in command, when those who err are not only in the majority, but also occupy high places, so that error has not only found its way into the Church but is also defended by the Church as such, while the truth is trampled under foot and condemned; when the sacraments are not only desecrated, but when this desecration is also officially defended and protected, while all protest is suppressed; when discipline is not only weakened, but is also systematically condemned, so that all exercise of church discipline appears impossible; and when they who love the truth have raised the trumpet to their lips and sounded the alarm again and again, but without result,—then it may be true that in such a Church fellowship salvation is still sought in the blood of Christ in a very general sense of the word, but the Reformed believer cannot endure it there any longer, may also not remain there, but is indeed called to separate himself and to strive after the pure manifestation of the Body of Christ.
Usually, however, in history this question of the proper moment of secession resolves itself spontaneously.
When the Church departs, he who blows the trumpet and calls to repentance without a favorable result always meets with opposition. When a Church does not listen to the protest of those who would maintain the truth purely, then that Church, under the guidance of evil leaders, will sooner or later arrive at the point that it persecutes the faithful and finally casts them out.
This was really true of Luther. As is well known, he did not intend to break with the Church. When he nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the church at Wittenburg, he did not intend separation, but protest; he did not intend a breach, but Reformation of the Church within the Church. It was finally the papal ban that struck him and forced him out of the Romish Church. His attempt at Church Reformation encountered bitter opposition and resulted in persecution. He was compelled to form a new church communion.
It was no different with Hendrik De Cock. His protest and his preaching were not tolerated by the enemies. The ecclesiastical boards finally forced him out of the fellowship of the existing Church.
And thus it usually goes.
It was no different in our own history.
Our separation was forced upon us.
We must never forget this. It is true that lately there are those who would present the matter differently. One hears many voices which lament the fact that we no longer have a place in the Christian Reformed Churches. And then they condemn it that we went out of the Church.
Such, however, is not the case.
Personally we never had any thought of forsaking the fellowship of the Christian Reformed Churches. On the contrary, we did everything possible, consistent with the maintenance of the truth, to remain in that fellowship. Personally, when it became plain that the case was proceeding to an evil conclusion, in order to fulfill all righteousness, we finally offered the Classis to allow ourselves to be examined on the ground of Scripture and the confession. But nothing could avail. They demanded that we subscribe to the un-Reformed Three Points, or at least promise that we would not fight against them. And that we might not do. For we had promised before God and the Churches that we would maintain the Reformed truth. And the Three Points are not Reformed, but essentially Arminian and Pelagian, a denial of the confession. We could therefore do nothing else than refuse submission to the demand of the Classis.
And then the Classis simply trampled all Reformed church polity under foot, deposed my consistory, suspended me, and soon thereafter put me out of office, and thus compelled us to form our own church communion.
What happened to us was also the experience of the congregation of Kalamazoo and the congregation at Hope, Riverbend.
These are the facts.
And these facts, may not now be distorted.
On our part, there was protest against the increasing corruption of the truth through the emphasis of false theory of Common Grace, and also against the accompanying retrogression in Christian life.
On its part, the Church opposed our protest,—not the Church in its entirety, but nevertheless under the guidance of its prominent leaders. They forbade us to protest. They would enforce silence upon us. They demanded submission to their teachings and practices of men. And because of our persistent refusal, they finally banned us out of their fellowship.
Hence, it is also true of our “secession” that it did not take place until it had become fully evident that all Reformation of the Church within the Churches was impossible.
And the Protestant Reformed Churches have before the tribunal of God the right of existence; and they are the purest manifestation of the Body of Christ.
That is our sacred conviction!