On the evening of May 22, 1940, a prayer service was held in the “Roosevelt Park” Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, with a view to the first Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, that was to begin its sessions on the following day.
On that evening the undersigned, pastor of the “calling church,” led the services, and in the ministry of the Word spoke as follows:
To you and to me this is a glad occasion. For the first time our churches are to meet in synodical gathering. This means that we have made history. To us it signifies that by the grace of God we might complete our denominational organization. It means that “here we raise our Ebenezer.” Very small and insignificant was our beginning. Three consistories were deposed with their pastors; three congregations were ejected from the fellowship of the Christian Reformed Churches, one of which since then separated itself from us and went its own way. This is only fifteen years ago. To protect ourselves from utter dissolution we, at first, organized a larger or broader gathering in our combined consistory meetings. This organization was based on what was known as the “Act of Agreement.” It was a temporary, emergency measure, pending the outcome of our protest with the Synod of Englewood, Chicago, 1926. After the question of our protest was settled, we organized a classis. And now we are about to institute our first synodical gathering. God has done great things for us! Hence, this is a glad occasion, that fills our hearts with the joy of thanksgiving!
We have good reason to rejoice, because we may look upon all that has thus far been accomplished as the work of God, as a sure token of His grace to us- ward. This must needs be added. It must have the emphasis. Only in the confidence that our churches are the work of God in Christ, that our privilege to institute a synod is the gift of His grace to us, can we really be glad. Our work means nothing. Christ alone gathers His Church. If the fact that we are about to open our synod represents merely the crowning effort of a period of human labor and toil, while God’s grace was not with us, we may speak of success, and ….woe unto us! For success is no blessing. And mere success would only indicate that God had “prospered” us in a sinful way! But we are confident that God’s grace was upon us all these years, and that we may consider the present occasion a blessing of His grace. Of this we may feel confident, because we have the truth. And where the Word of God is preached, there is the Church; and where the Church is, there is the grace and blessing of the God of Jacob. We have the truth! Of this the Scriptures testify. For this we have the testimony of all the saints that have loved and adhered to and professed the truth of God’s sovereign grace. Of this even the very synod of the Christian Reformed Church that adopted the “Three Points,” in spite of itself, was bound to bear witness! And, therefore, in the confidence that the Lord was with us in the past, and that hitherto we have been led by His grace and Spirit, we rejoice in this occasion!
And yet, it behooves us to rejoice with fear and trembling. The completion of our denominational organization also means that we have overcome one more of those imperfections in our church life that served to remind us constantly of our history as churches. We like to overcome them, of course; we strive to perfection also with regard to the church political, institutional life of our churches; yet, as things become more normal, we are apt to forget our own history. And that is a danger. We should not forget in what way the Lord called us into existence as churches. For, if we forget our peculiar history, we easily forget our specific calling. Besides, a synod is a broader gathering. And this means that the completion of our organization brings with it the danger of hierarchy, or if you please, increases that danger. Because it is a broader gathering than a classis, a synod is necessarily a comparatively small body and less representative than a classis. It is more remote from the life of the individual churches than a classis. It seems to entrust more power to fewer men. The temptation to assume a power which we do not and cannot have is more than imaginary. And as there is strength and wisdom in a multitude of counsellors, so the danger to err increases when the counsellors are but few.
Hence, we must walk carefully, with spiritual caution and vigilance. When we meet as synod and deliberate upon matters that concern the well-being of our churches, we should constantly keep before us the ideal, that at the end of our sessions we may with full assurance of faith report to our individual churches what is stated in the words of our text for this evening: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” (Acts 15:28). Then we walk and labor safely, and may we expect the blessing of the Lord our God upon our efforts.
Our text expresses:
The Assurance of Having Been Guided by the Spirit.
Let us note that this is:
I. A Significant Assurance
II. An Indispensable Assurance
III. A Possible Assurance
I. You are, of course, acquainted with the context in which our text occurs, and with the occasion of the letter that was sent to the churches among the Gentiles, and that contains this beautiful expression of assurance and confidence. A convent had been held at Jerusalem. Advisedly I say convent. This gathering, which was held about the year 50 A.D. has sometimes been called the first synod. But this is hardly correct. For, first of all, we may remark that there can hardly have been room for a synodical gathering as long as the apostles still lived. They were directly guided by the Spirit. They had authority over all the churches. And the apostolic authority was final. As long as the apostles lived, therefore, there was neither need of, nor occasion for, a synod. Nor was the constituency of this gathering such that it could be called a synod. The latter is always a representative gathering. Its members are delegated and receive their commission from the churches that delegate them. But the meeting at Jerusalem was constituted of the apostles, and elders of the church at Jerusalem, together with Paul and Barnabas, who had been sent by the church of Antioch and who represented more particularly the churches among the Gentiles. Hence, we may more properly characterize this gathering as a convent under the direct guidance of the apostles.
The occasion of this gathering was an important question that had arisen, and that threatened to cause trouble and dissension in the churches unless it were quickly and definitely settled. There were some in the church of Antioch and elsewhere, Judaizing teachers, who claimed that the converts from the Gentiles must be circumcised and were in duty bound to keep the law of Moses. To us, of course, this question may appear very simple and to offer no difficulties whatever. But we must remember that those days were a period of transition from the old dispensation into the new, from the bondage to the law into the liberty of the free sons of God. The child had grown into manhood, but could hardly become accustomed to his new freedom. Already it had required a special revelation to convince the church that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews. But even now, it was not easy completely to break away from the ordinances of the Old Testament, the law of Moses. The temple was still in Jerusalem, and it is evident from all that we read about the New Testament church in that city, that much of its life was still concentrated in that temple and its services. And now the Gentiles were brought into the fold. What was their relation to the ordinances of the law? Was it not natural that many in the church, even though they were not Judaizing teachers in the evil sense of that word, were inclined to the view that also these Gentile converts were obliged to keep the law of Moses, and that they should be incorporated into the commonwealth of Israel by the rite of circumcision?
This, then, was the important problem that was to be decided by this convent in Jerusalem. They deliberate upon the matter. They consider the question from every aspect. Peter speaks. James speaks. They hear Paul and Barnabas. And they finally reach a decision. They unanimously decide to write unto the Gentile churches that they must abstain from certain heathen corruptions, but that for the rest they will lay upon them no other burden. And it is of these decisions that they testify: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.”
But what do they mean by this expression of confident assurance regarding the divine approval upon their decisions? Is it their intention to indicate a certain synergistic relationship between the Holy Spirit and themselves in the matter of the decisions they had just reached? When they say: “the Holy Ghost and us” do they look upon the parties mentioned as a sort of a joint agency, that freely cooperated, on a more or less equal basis, with each other in reaching their decisions ? The unsophisticated, almost childlike simplicity of the expression might easily leave that impression: “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.” The Holy Ghost and they appear to be coordinated here. They had worked in conjunction. The Holy Ghost had been just a part of their council or convent. Either He had acted in the capacity of advisory member, and had submitted His advice to their deliberations and approval; or they had first reached their decisions and submitted them for approval to the judgment of the Holy Ghost. And thus they could say at the end of their deliberations: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.”
But we know better. No one who understands the Scriptures will even be tempted to read a suggestion of synergism into this beautifully confident declaration. For, in the first place, according to the Scriptures this is never the relation between the divine work and our acts. Even though we are co-workers with God, followers of God as dear children, imitators, if you please, we are still followers. God’s work and our acts are never coordinated. The former is always first, the latter always second. The former is always the cause, the latter always the effect of that cause. Our acts are never more than the fruit and expression of the work of God. And it is in the light of this general Scriptural teaching that also this expression must be interpreted. God draws and we come, that is, we come as the fruit of God’s drawing us. God works in us to do His good pleasure, and we work out our own salvation, that is, we do the latter in the strength of the former. It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, that is, the Holy Ghost caused us to know what seemed good to Him, and inclined our hearts to consider it good also. Secondly, that synergistic view of this expression would be a proof that we fail to understand the proper relation of the Holy Ghost to the Church of Christ. The Spirit does not dwell next to the Church, as a sort of advisory counsellor, but in the Church. He is poured out into our hearts. He is at the controls. He influences and guides the Church from within. And they become one, but so that the Spirit is the controlling agent and power. When the Spirit and the Bride say: Come! you hear no two voices but only one, the prayer of the Church; yet, that prayer is the prayer of the Spirit through the conscious faith of the Church. And when you read: “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us,” you meet with one judgment and one decision: the judgment and decision of that particular convent; yet, so that it is the judgment and decision of the Holy Ghost. And, thirdly, let us not forget that it is not the proper function of the Holy Spirit to act as a sort of independent advisory counsellor. He is never separated from Christ. He does not speak of Himself. He always takes it out of Christ, the Word, and declares it unto us. Now, surely, the only proper attitude any convent can assume over against that Word of Christ is that of strict submission. All synergism is simply out of the question. The beautiful expression of assurance in the words of our text cannot mean anything else, than that the members of the convent were confident of having learned the will of Christ and submitted themselves to it.
This, then, is the great significance of the expression. In last analysis it means that they had been given to know the will of Christ with respect to the matter on which they had deliberated, and that they had been inclined to will that will. It signifies that they had been infallibly guided by the Spirit to know the will of Christ, and they were clearly aware of this. Their minds had been spiritually illuminated to discern the things of the Spirit. Their deliberations had been directed by the Holy Spirit in the way of the will of God, in the direction of those conclusions and decisions that were pleasing to Him. Their will and all their desires had been sanctified and inclined, so that under no circumstances, and no matter what it might cost and what sacrifice and self-denial it might demand, they would will the will of Christ. And all this guidance, thus the expression implies, had been strictly infallible. There was no influence upon their decisions of their own carnal considerations. Their own fleshly desires and mere human aspirations had not entered into their deliberations and conclusions whatsoever. Their decisions were purely the fruit of the guidance of the Spirit. And thus they are able so confidently to state: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.” And it should be our earnest prayer and strife that we may so labor as a synod, that at the close of our gatherings this same assurance may be ours!
II. And we should feel that this assurance is absolutely indispensable. It is imperative that we so
labor that we may carry away this assurance. Without it we can have neither peace nor confidence. Unless we can truly take this testimony upon our own lips, we dare not continue! At every step of the way, at every decision we take, we need this confidence and should be able to say: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.”
For remember that it is Christ that builds His church, not we. All work that is strictly our work, not His, amounts to nothing, cannot endure, is only stubble, and will be burned in the day of the Lord. And let us strictly maintain this, and express it clearly and concisely: it is Christ, and Christ alone that builds His church! Let us not for a moment cater to the conceited imagination that the building of the House of God depends in part also upon us. Let us leave no room for the notion, that we build the church for Christ. Let us not even nourish the idea that it is Christ and we that do the work. The work is His. He gathers His church, the elect unto eternal life, from the beginning of the world even unto the end, and from all the nations of the earth. He constantly causes His church to be the House of God. He preserves His church and makes her grow in the grace and knowledge of Himself. For, He always does the will of His Father, even now He is glorified and exalted at the right hand of God; and it is the Father’s will that of all He gave unto Him He should lose none! And He will ultimately glorify His church and raise up the elect at the last day.
And do not hasten to add, that, although it is true that Christ is the Master-builder of the whole House of God, yet it is through our work that He establishes and keeps His church, for even this may imply a wrong conception. You should say: Christ gathers and preserves and perfects His Church through His Spirit and Word! Only when that is your heartfelt confession, can you maintain the truth that it is Christ’s work and His alone to build the House of God, and that all our work, in as far as it is merely human, means nothing. For, it is true, indeed, that it pleases Christ to employ His people in His service, to make them co-workers with Himself, even in the establishment of His church. But we should remember, that even then it is Christ that does His work through us. It is our privilege and blessing that He will use us as His rational-moral instruments, so that we may delight in His service and look for the reward of grace. But that does not alter the fact, that only what Christ does, even through us, is of value for the realization of the church and kingdom of God, and shall abide forever. All the rest will be broken down and burned with fire in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.
It follows, then, that if we would really be busy in the work of the Lord, our mind and will and heart must
be controlled by His mind and will, by the Spirit of Christ, in order that our work may truly be the work of Christ and nothing else. That Spirit must enlighten us, that we may be able to discern spiritual things spiritually. He must instruct us, in order that we may know the will of Christ, the Word of God. He must incline our will and heart, in order that we may at all times be willing to do those things which we discern to be in harmony with His will. And we need the assurance that He will so guide us. No contractor dares go ahead with the building of an edifice, if he does not understand the plans and specifications, if he is not sure of the mind of the architect. And we dare not continue with our work as a church, with our deliberations and decisions as a synod, unless we are assured that we know the mind of the Master-builder of the House of God, unless we are confident that He does His work through us, unless we may so labor that at the close of our sessions we carry away with us the assurance expressed in the words of our text: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”!
This truth is all the more urgent, if we consider that the flesh is always with us, and that the carnal mind is enmity against God. The church in the world is never perfect. The very holiest of Christ’s saints have only a small beginning of the new obedience. The old operations of sin are still in their members, and are very active. They tend to darken their understanding so that they cannot discern the things of the kingdom of God. They will pervert their inclinations and desires, so that they strive after carnal things, even when they are busy in the work of the Lord. And the tendency of these carnal influences and operations is to destroy the work of Christ. That old, carnal nature will be constantly with us, also when we meet as a synod. It will, if possible, lead us astray in our deliberations, so that we will, seek, and desire our own carnal ends, rather than the true well-being of the Churches we represent. How easily the convent at Jerusalem, under the influence of carnal prejudices, might have taken radically different decisions from those they now wrote to the churches of the Gentiles! Might not their fleshly predilections have moved them to cater to their brethren according to the flesh, to justify the view of the Judaizing teachers, and thus to have led astray the church of the new dispensation? And are there not many carnal tendencies with us, as from day to day we shall meet as a synod, that may easily motivate us to seek self rather than the kingdom of God? Truly, it may well be called a marvel that through such sinful agents as we are, Christ will build His church. But how much the more imperative it appears to be in the light of all this, that all our labors be such that we may carry away the assurance expressed in our text: “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”!
III. But it is, perhaps, objected that for us it is impossible to attain to that assurance. Never shall we be able to say of our decisions as a synod with the same confident assurance as the convent at Jerusalem, that is seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us. There is an important difference between the convent of Jerusalem in the year 50 A.D. and a synod of today. For, at the convent the apostles were present, and, no doubt, occupied a dominating place. And the apostles were infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit! No wonder they could write to the Gentile churches so confidently about their decisions, that it had seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them! But by the same token it is quite impossible for the church of today to reach that same assurance. Or would it not be Roman Catholicism to make this same claim for our synodical decisions, and to introduce them by the assertion: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”? The convent of Jerusalem, under the leadership of the apostles, could claim the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit; but we cannot take such claim. Hence, what was entirely possible for them, is quite impossible for us.
But this is a mistake. Surely, the Holy Spirit of Christ dwells in the church of today as really as He made His abode with the early church! And no one will deny that the promise that He would lead us into all the truth, was not only for the apostles and the early church, but also for the church of today. But what then? Shall we make a distinction between an infallible and fallible guidance of the Spirit? To say this is to expose it as an error. There is not fallible guidance of the Spirit. His guidance is always infallible. He never leads astray. He is the Spirit of truth. The difference, therefore, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Churches is not, that they claim that the Church is still infallibly guided by the Spirit, while we hold that the Spirit’s guidance is fallible. That cannot be. The difference is rather this, that they claim the continuation of the direct apostolic guidance, which we deny. They teach an infallible guidance of the church directly through men, apart from the Holy Scriptures; while we maintain that all the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the church of today is inseparably connected with the Word. They, therefore, place tradition and the decrees of popes and councils on a par with Holy Writ, while we condemn this as an error. But even so we maintain that also today the Church of Christ is infallibly guided. We have the promise that the Spirit will lead us into all the truth, and we have the infallible Scriptures in which the Spirit instructs us, that we may know the truth. And although it is true that in the convent of Jerusalem the guidance of the Spirit was direct, i.e., through the apostles, while today it is mediate, i.e. through the Scriptures, we still hold that it is quite possible for the church of Christ today to attain to the assurance expressed in the words of our text: “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.”
But some will object, that though all this may be true in principle, it does not work out in the actual life of the church. In reality the church is always imperfect, and so are her declarations and decrees. There is always room for improvement, for correction and reformation.
And this is certainly true. The church is this world may well be compared in this respect to the individual Christian. Even as in the Christian, so in the church there is a principle of new life, a small beginning of new obedience and there is still much of the old flesh, much sin and imperfection. And the Protestant Churches, especially the Reformed, have always frankly acknowledge this. And this is the reason why, in distinction from the Roman Catholic Church, they refused to consider anything at all as being on a par with the Holy Scriptures. No tradition, no decrees of the councils, not even the adopted confessions were clothed with the same authority as the Word of God. The latter must always remain the criterion, the former must always stand or fall according as they could be proved to be in harmony or to deviate from that Word. And only that church that strictly adheres to this truth can be said to be infallibly guided by the Spirit.
And, this, therefore, is the conditio sine qua non for the attainment of the assurance whereof we speak. The Christian may have only a small beginning of the new obedience, but that beginning is a principle. He does not, therefore, deliberately err. He is very really a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold all things have become new! New he is, even in his attitude over against his own sin. He hates it. He is sorry for it. He flees from it. He overcomes it, even though it be with frequent stumbling. The same is true of the church of Christ. She does not deliberately err. She may stumble, but she will repent. Guided by the Holy Ghost, she will surely seek and find the light of the infallible Word. For that guidance she will pray. The Word she will search. And in this way she will, with all her imperfections, more and more approximate the ideal of perfectly preserving and developing and applying in her life the infallible Word of God, and attain to the assurance expressed in the words of our text: “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”!
Brethren, let us so labor! May this Word of God be so applied to our hearts, that we earnestly desire that infallible guidance of the Spirit and the Word of God in all our deliberations as a synod! May it dominate all our sessions! Then, when we adjourn and return, each of us to his own congregation, we shall be able to tell our people concerning the decisions that we took: “So we decided, because thus it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us”!