(This is a continuation of the translation of a series of articles by the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema on the subject “Voortgaande Reformatie.”)
In our last article on the above subject we observed that the Reformation of the Churches takes place through Secession as soon as it has appeared impossible to reform the Church within the Church.
Further, we noted that this impossibility of reforming the Church within the Church does not then first become a fact when a certain church has become in the absolute sense of the word false church. A certain church can manifest the distinguishing marks of the false church in varying degrees. To a greater or lesser degree it can corrupt the doctrine, desecrate the sacraments, or neglect discipline. Absolutely false church it does not quickly become.
However, when in a certain church communion the wicked gain the upper hand and begin to dominate, so that they who lift the trumpet to their lips to call to repentance and conversion no longer have a place, but are persecuted and cast out of the synagogue because of their faithful testimony, then the only recourse for the faithful is the way of secession, the way of continuing the true church in a new church communion.
In the meantime, this is not the only way in which one can conceive of the Reformation of the Churches.
Another way to such a Reformation is the way of the reveille, known in our country as revival.
Revival is the Reformation of the Churches through spiritual awakening.
We should be on our guard, however, against all kinds of false conceptions and wrong practices and movements which especially in our country present themselves under the name of revival.
First of all, many churches are found in our country which manage to extend their lagging existence for a time through the means of periodic “revivals.” This is a great evil. In such churches they have long since weaned away from regular and covenantal training and instruction of the believers and their seed. At best, the preaching consists yet of a gospel on a thumbnail. Not infrequently, however, the people have already weaned away even from that gospel, poor in content though it may be; and on the Sabbath day the assembly is treated to .a lecture (and a very poor one, at that) about various subjects which have absolutely no connection with the truth of the Word of God. Gradually, however, the audiences become smaller. People do not come to church any more. At first they come to church only once a Sunday, in order to devote the rest of the day to various worldly pleasures. It does not take long before the one remaining service is attended only by a few women and children. During the summer months the church doors remain closed. During the winter the weather conditions do not always permit church attendance. There is really no Church any more. About the truth people know little or nothing. Of God’s covenant they have never heard. A conception of the church they do not have. Things go from bad to worse. But now there appears from time to time a revivalist, who is advertised far and wide, who must once more arouse a little life in the dead bones,—at least to the extent that the people will again, under the influence of such an awakening, attend church for a while. To be sure, this influence does not long endure. Soon the death is in the pot again; and finally it becomes impossible to remove it. And thus, at last, the church doors are shut for good, and an entire community sinks away into a heathen condition.
May our churches be spared from such “revivals”!
They have nothing in common with genuine revival.
At stake in them is not the truth, the sanctity of God’s covenant, but only the lagging existence of a church which is in fact no church.
But this is not the only matter to which we wanted to point.
We also had our eye upon such movements, which are encountered especially in our country, in which suddenly a mighty personality appears on the scene, is adept at gathering around himself through various means thousands upon thousands of people, and presents himself as an Evangelist and a preacher of repentance. We refer to such movements as those of Moody, of Pearsall Smith, of the Salvation Army, of Billy Sunday and others. (This was written before the day of Billy Graham. HCH)
Now it is not at all our intention to deny that, as far as some of these revivalists are concerned, they are.
Now it is not at all our intention to deny that, as far as some of these revivalists are concerned, they are prompted by personal zeal and the desire, as some would put it, “to win souls for Jesus.” Of many of them we cannot even believe that. We simply cannot believe that the fear of the Lord and the love of Christ can also reveal themselves in the wonderful acrobatics which a Billy Sunday could “sell” the people, nor in the bombastic, proud, blasphemous language which he could utter both in preaching and in prayer.
For the rest, however, we do not wish to pass judgment on these things.
We will certainly declare also of all such movements that they have nothing to do with actual revival, that they are erroneously known by the name revivals, and that as far as we are concerned we do not expect from them any real fruit for the Church of God.
All these movements are extra-ecclesiastical: they stand outside of the Church.
Fact is that they find their power and their reason for existence exactly in the decline and apostasy of the Church. The leaders of such movements usually know how to capitalize on the defects and sins, the weaknesses and wrongs of the church. They appear to delight in emphasizing what is wrong in the Church of the Lord. And they certainly do not seek their strength in calling the Church back to the old paths and the old truth. On the contrary, their strength continues exactly in the existence of that multitude who have broken with Covenant and Church, but whose emotions are stirred by the strongly emotional repentance-preaching of the Revivalist.
Such revivals do not aim at the Church, but they exist and proceed apart from the Church.
They do not intend the spiritual awakening of a church whose life is in decline, but a winning of souls for Jesus, apart from the Church of Christ.
They do not call for a return to the maintenance of the full truth of God in Christ. On the contrary, they are without exception characterized by the insidious heresy of general atonement and the free will of the sinner.
All such movements find no support in Scripture and will in the end appear to be harmful for the Church and to stand in enmity over against the Church.
Neither do we mean by revival that which came to manifestation in the Netherlands in the form of so-called companies, or fellowships (gezelschappen).
The church declined in grace in almost every respect. Doctrine was no longer maintained in its purity; there was simply no thought of ecclesiastical discipline; spiritual piety of life was missing; people went along with the world, and the Christian Confession was not heard from their lips nor seen in their walk.
And now they gathered together as a few believers, who came together deeply aggrieved by this condition of the Church, in order to edify one another and comfort one another in these difficult and unspiritual times.
They formed a kind of church within the Church.
No, they did not intend any secession. They remained with the Church. They even attended the worship services. But what was real and true came only then, when the hour for their “fellowship” struck. Then came the time of spiritual joy.
Not seldom these gatherings would evolve into a manifestation of false and sickly mysticism, the chief characteristic of which, again, soon made its appearance as a stinking pride under ‘the form of lowliness and true humiliation. Indeed, instead of applying .themselves to the study of God’s Word, in order to examine themselves in its light, they soon tore themselves loose from that Word, in order to speak from their own experience and to regard that subjective experience as the genuine and true thing. They would then relate to one another their conversion-experiences. And it was not only thus, that they would actually relate what God had done for their souls; but there would arise in such fellowships a competition as to who had traveled the deepest way. And thus it came to pass not infrequently that someone’s way, unnoticed by himself, would become ever deeper and more terrible the more often he told the story. And let alone the fact that in that way they became ever more sickly, they also began more and more to set up their own conversion-experience as a criterion. One had to have just such experiences, then, if he wanted to join in the conversations about regeneration and conversion. Thus everyone was weighed and measured and judged, and usually found wanting, until finally there were only a few lamenting, pious souls left, who formed the real church within the Church.
Especially in some parts of the Netherlands these fellowships developed into a morass of sickly mysticism.
The traces of this one finds in our country among not a few. The chief characteristic of such sickly people is exactly that they have no concept of the church. Just as in those fellowships they were concerned about a kind of spiritual awakening, about a revival, but only of themselves, not of the church; just as in and through these “fellowships” they did not bother at all with the ecclesiastical way, but went their own, self-chosen way; so with these descendants of such false mystics there is precisely a lack of a correct presentation and conception of the Church of Christ and of His Covenant.
You can observe this in everything.
On the Sabbath a mixed multitude really assembles, instead of the congregation of God in Christ. There are the assured ones, who may and dare to confess that they are Christ’s property; secondly, there are the “seeking souls,” who already searched for years and have never found, and who would take it ill of you if you emphasize that they should finally find what they claim to be seeking; and, in the third place, there are also theungodly and unconverted, who still have no part in the kingdom of Christ. The preacher must also reckon with this. He must be careful that he does not address his audience as “beloved in the Lord.” It is better to say: “Dear friends.” In the preaching he must also be careful that he makes a precise distinction between the different groups. Especially in the applicatory remarks he must have a special word for each group, He must take care that he does not point to the wickednesses of those who consider themselves children of God. He must not touch their pride and self-exaltation. Further, he must allow the seeking souls quietly to continue seeking: for they do not want it any other way. And to the delight of everyone, even of themselves, the preacher must preach thunder and lightning especially to the actually present or the imaginary ungodly.
The same lack of a correct conception of the Church comes to manifestation in their view, or at least in their action with respect to the sacraments.
If they had their way, they would baptize all who are presented for baptism in the church. Since this is impossible, they allow the “wicked and unconverted” to make a certain confession of the truth, as they call it, in order that they may nevertheless be able to have their children baptized.
But when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, then they begin to weigh and to judge,—not themselves, but others! Only a few, the prominent ones, the specially graced ones, the assured ones, take their place at the table of the Lord. The rest of the congregation hesitates and stays away from the table of the Lord, or do not even give it a thought to join with those “perfect ones” at the Lord’s table.
Thus they separate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And all this arises out of the same defect: they have no conception of the Church.
However this may be, also such “fellowships” have nothing in common with a true revival. And this is true because they do not aim at the Church, but within the Church they attempt to promote their own upbuilding in an altogether unecclesiastical manner.
No, revival is an act of the Spirit whereby He arouses the Church out of the spiritual slumber into which it has sunk.
It can happen that a church declines with respect to doctrine and life. The warning voice of the watchmen on the walls of Zion was silent for a time. And the Church fell asleep. And if under such conditions of lethargy the Spirit of Christ raises up men who perceive this decline of the Church of God, who bemoan her miserable estate, who again raise the trumpet to their lips, not to address the wild masses outside of the Church and there to lament the condition of Zion, but to call within her walls and to her citizens: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead!” and if that same Spirit then also works in the bosom of the Church with irresistible grace, opens the eyes, pierces the ears, unlocks the hearts, humiliates and fills with the fear of God, until once again sorrow and repentance and a turning to the God of the fathers come to manifestation,—then you have revival, reformation through genuine spiritual awakening!