(Note: This is the last in a series of translated articles from the pen of the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema. These articles first appeared in the Holland language in Volumes 6 and 7 of theStandard Bearer. HCH)
Church reformation can, take place, thus we have seen, through secession and departure out of a certain church communion.
This cannot and may not wait, and in history it does never wait, until a certain church has become false in the absolute sense of the word, so that there is found in it no remnant of the truth whatsoever and so that in the absolute sense such a church has corrupted and profaned the sacraments. But when the church declines, when the Church does not maintain and preserve the pure truth, but perverts it; when it profanes the sacraments; when it places the righteous under the ban and protects the ungodly; and when it appears impossible to reform the Church within the Church, something which becomes especially evident from this, that they persecute and cast out those who sound the trumpet-call of repentance, then there is but one way of reformation open: secession. The true Church is then continued by those who separated themselves from the existing communion of churches.
Reformation can also take place, as we have seen, through so-called revival.
At such a time the Church has suffered a spiritual relapse, has fallen asleep.
And the King of His Church raises up men who have been awakened out of that spiritual sleep of death, who are concerned about the condition of the Church, and who, moved by the Holy Spirit particularly for that purpose, send forth the call unto sorrow and repentance. And the Savior Himself causes this word of awakening of such preachers to find entrance, to find reception, so that a real spiritual awakening takes place, whether in the local congregation or in the broader sphere of the church communion.
However, at present we do not have our eye upon any of these forms of reformation.
Rather are we speaking of on-going reformation.
And it lies in the very nature of the case that by this we do not mean the reformation of the churches through secession. The latter is exactly characterized by this, that it takes place at definite periods, that it passes through a history of longer or shorter duration, but that then it is an accomplished fact.
The same also applies to spiritual awakening, to revival.
Neither do we have our eye upon what is usually understood by an orderly restoration of the Church, by a reformation of the Church within the Church. The latter is, for example, the intention of those orthodox, Reformed. preachers who are aware of the. corruption in the Netherlands Reformed (Hervormde) Church, who are grieved on account of it, but who nevertheless did not appear to have the freedom and courage to break with that church and to affiliate with the men of the Secession or later to cooperate with theDoleantie. They conceive of the possibility of an orderly and gradual restoration of the Reformed (Hervormde) Church, and they always continue to labor with that ideal in view. Their motto is: reformation of the Church within the Church!
At present we do not have in mind such methodical restoration either.
Also the necessity of such restoration and the attempt at it already presuppose that the Church had declined and departed in doctrine and in life, in worship and in discipline, and that there is therefore in the special sense of the word a need of restoration, of reformation.
When we speak of on-going, or continuing, reformation, then we refer to a reformation for which there is an always continuing need: a reformation which assumes the form of a continuing and orderly process.
Even as the child of God, apart from special sins and backslidings, experiences the need of constant and always continuing conversion, so also the Church of Christ in the world is in need of continuing reformation. This is true, on the one hand, because it is always surrounded by enemies who are intent upon the Church’s destruction, who cannot rest until they have destroyed the Church of Christ. In various ways they attempt to deceive the Church into forsaking the right path,—that triple alliance of the devil, the world, and the sin which still remains in the Church. Corruption is always sneaking in. The danger of the falsification of the truth, of the profaning of the sacraments, of the weakening and emasculation of discipline, of the degeneration of the worship service, and of the despoiling of church government,—these dangers always threaten the Church of the Lord on every hand. On account of this there, is a continuous need to watch and to fight, to purge out the, evil, to cast out the wicked. A watch must be set over the confession of the churches, in order that no false philosophy may corrupt it. A watch must be set not only over the formulated confession, as we possess it in the Three Forms of Unity, but also over the living confession of the congregation in word and in walk. A watch must be set over the sacraments, not only so that they are not profaned, but also in order that they may not be corrupted by all kinds of superstitions, such as takes place, for example, in the Romish Church. A watch must be set over church discipline and church government, in order that the former be maintained and the wicked banned and the pious protected, and in order that the latter may not go in the direction of hierarchy. Especially to the latter we must pay attention. The temptation is so very great, and the history of the church confirms this, that the priesthood of believers is forced into the background, is denied, and that they who should be disciples of Christ now begin to lord it over the flock! A watch must be set over the public worship, in order that it remain free from dead form and continue to be a worship in spirit and in truth. Also the latter may well be emphasized, especially also in our day. All kinds of forms and formalism are introduced, mainly in order to keep the crowd in the church; and the preaching of the Word and the worship of the Lord in spirit and in truth are disappearing more and more. Here the attempt is made to attract the crowd, especially the young people, so it is said, by a so-called song-service and the promise of a short sermon; there they advertise special music and singing and offer sacrifices to the goddess of heathen art, attempting at least to gratify one’s artistic sense instead of worshipping the living God. And the stubborn striving of some, of whom one would expect better things, in the Christian Reformed Churches hereabouts, again to introduce absolution has certainly demonstrated how great the danger of corrupting the worship service is.
There is, therefore, a continuing need of purification.
We may not sit down by the burdens.
The Church may not rest upon its laurels and imagine that the battle has already been fought, that the danger has already disappeared, that the enemy has already been defeated, that the victory has already been gained. Danger is always threatening. The enemy is constantly on the attack. Corruption is always sneaking in. There is a continuing process of corruption against which we must always be on guard, constantly fighting. Always and again corruption must be warded off and banned, wherever it creeps in.
Even as the individual child of God is in need of continuing conversion, constant mortification of the, old man, so the Church is in this negative sense of the word in need of continuing reformation.
We must put on the whole armor of God.
It is better for the Church of the Lord continually to watch and to pray and to fight and always and again to reform, than to wait until corruption has crept in and has gnawed at its vitals and until the need of a special awakening or reformation arises.
This, however, is but the one side.
Next to this negative side of all reformation, the positive side may not be absent.
The Church of Christ in the world may also never be satisfied with that to which it has already attained, in order now to rest upon its laurels and to live out of the past, out of tradition.
If it assumes this attitude, then the Church will die, nay, perhaps better stated: the Church is already dead.
Above all, this is true with respect to the confession of the truth.
We may be thankful, yea, we are thankful, for that which the Lord our God has been pleased to pass on to us through our Reformed fathers. Thankfully we may acknowledge, and shall acknowledge if it be well with us, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church of the past. We do not go along with those who are proud of the fact that they have shoved aside every formal confession and have dispensed with every credo. “Undenominationalism” is not only absurd, does not only in last analysis not really exist; but is deceit in things sacred, because every church after all has its “name,” its peculiar character, possesses its confession, and because those who shout most loudly of “undenominationalism” also shout most loudly that they alone know it all and have a monopoly on the truth as well as on wisdom. But the attempt to despise every confession and to be a church without a credo is deeply sinful. It is a despising of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church in the past, a breaking-with the organism of the body of Christ. The Church as it reveals itself in the present in the midst of the world does not stand alone, does not stand apart from the Church in the past. The entire Church, of the past, of the present, and of the future, is one great organism. To that Church the Savior has given His Spirit and has promised and bestowed the guidance of the Spirit. Also in the past the Church was led by that Spirit. And under and by means of the guidance of that Spirit the Church in the past has mined the truth out of the Word of God, has consciously apprehended and assimilated that truth, frequently—in fact, most often—in the way of a fierce and bitter struggle. The fruit of all this we possess in the confession of the churches. To despise all this, to act as if we ourselves, independent from the past, must and will and can derive the truth of God out of His Word is not only self-deception, but it is also deeply sinful pride and a despising of the work of God.
Therefore we shall then also thankfully enter into the heritage of the fathers and appreciate our Reformed confession, make it our own, assimilate, it in our consciousness, love it; and defend it.
We shall, as much as possible, make the history of the Church and of the development of the truth and of the confession our own, consider it and contemplate it, in order that we may recognize and understand therein the guidance of the Spirit.
And we shall take our own starting-point and find our own point of union in the positive line of that history.
Yea, we shall be extremely careful when we begin to speak of changing or expanding the confession.
The Church shall not change its confession because of the, clamor of a certain new generation (de jongeren), who perhaps know the confession not at all, much less have ever learned to appreciate it land to love it. That would certainly result in the emasculation of the truth. And the example of the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924, who in a rash way, in what very much appeared to be a passionate, headlong spirit, under the greatest confusion, without calm deliberation or serious examination, added three points of doctrine to the Reformed confession,—that example we certainly will not imitate. May God keep us from it!
But when we have emphasized this, when we have fully appreciated the work of God in His Church in the past, when we have thankfully acknowledged the spiritual heritage which our fathers have bequeathed us, then we must immediately add to this that we may not, without anything more, live out of tradition, that we maynot merely live out of the confession.
In that sense, in that dead sense, we may not be Confessionally Reformed. Then we fall again into the clutches of Romish tradition.
Then the work of men would again be thrust into the place of the work of God.
The Church lives with its confession. It does not live out of that confession.
Above that confession, for the Reformed consciousness, always stands the living Word of God. That Word of the Lord is always the only fountain out of which the Church drinks. Out of it only does the Church receive the living water which alone can quench its thirst. That Word only is for the Church the infallible rule of faith, the rule whose infallibility is guaranteed by divine revelation and inspiration. However highly the Reformed believer may appreciate and esteem his confession, never will, he place it next to the Word of his God; neither will he ever consider that confession to be infallible.
But there is more.
Not only does the Reformed believer never consider his confession as infallible; he will even concede that in that confession the acme, perfection, the ultimate, has not been attained.
The fathers have said much, bit they have not said it all.
They have assimilated much of the rich Word of God in the consciousness of their faith and have expressed it in the confession; they have not digested and understood everything.
The Church in the past enjoyed the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully we acknowledge that fact. The Church in the present has that guidance, however, no less. And also the latter fact may never be overlooked.
Added to this is the fact that also the development of history sheds light for the Church of the present on the revelation of God’s Word, light which the fathers necessarily lacked.
And God’s Word is so unfathomably rich!
Well, then, for this reason the Church of Christ will also want to walk the path of reformation in the positive sense of the word. While it accepts with thankfulness that which it might receive through the fathers, and while it condemns as so much pride every attempt to shove the confession aside and to live immediately and directly out of God’s Word, as though there were never a guidance of the Spirit in the past, the Church will nevertheless keep in mind both that the confession is fallible, and therefore can be purified, and that the confession is not perfect, and therefore can always be enriched out of the Word of God.
This enrichment of the confession does not take place through the cultivation of the science of theology in a certain school or university. This can be a means, but it can as such never lead to the enrichment or purifying of the confession. But it does occur through the on-going reformation of the churches in the positive sense. The Church, the congregation itself, must grow up and increase in the knowledge of the Word of God. It must consciously apprehend and assimilate ever more and more of the riches of the truth revealed to us in the Holy Scripture. Only then will the Church be able to give expression to that enriched consciousness in its formal confession. And as it is with the matter of the confession, thus it is with the entire life of the Church.
Thus it is with church government and with the worship and liturgy. Development, progress, growth must characterize the life of the Church. On-going reformation, in the healthy sense of the word, must be the motto of the Church.
To be sure,—and we have indeed kept this in mind throughout this entire discussion,—the reformation of the churches, in whatever form, in whatever manner, can never be the work of men. As little as the conversion of the Christian, the sanctification of the child of God, is the work of men, so little can the reformation of the churches ever take place through an arm of flesh. To present matters thus is Arminian. To attempt to reform the Church in one’s own strength leads to nothing else than artificial bungling. To attempt even to improve the life of the Church may have the result that we get precept upon precept and rule upon rule, about which finally no one concerns himself and by which no living Church of Christ is profited; but to reformation this will surely never lead.
If He, the King of His Church, Who walks in the midst of the candlesticks and has the seven stars in His right hand, forsakes us and visits us with His judgments, if He comes as a thief in the night to remove the light from the candlestick, if the seven spirits which are before His throne do not finally work their life-quickening work in the bosom of the churches, then all human effort is vain.
The reformation of the churches is the work of God!
He must cause His north wind to blow and His south wind to awaken; He must quicken and maintain life in the Church; He must cause His Word to find entrance into the hearts; and He must call His servants to the ministry of that Word.
Therefore also all reformation of the churches, also the on-going purification and edification of the Church, must be sought from the Lord, with deep humiliation before His face.
Let all our expectation be of Him!
But this does not change the fact that the Church must understand its calling, its calling to walk in the way of continuing reformation and to fight the good fight of faith to the very end.
Indeed, then the fruit will not be that we shall obtain a perfectly pure church on earth. Even the necessity of secession will not be averted. Always and again the church will decay and become false. But we shall be and shall remain, through the grace of God, also for the church of the future, bearers of the truth of God and of the pure confession.
The remnant is preserved.
And the blessing of the Lord shall be upon our churches!