[Note: This is a special edition of Question Box. My recent lecture in First Church, Grand Rapids, was followed by a question period. The question period, however, was not long enough for the answering of all the questions. The promise was made, therefore that any questions which were not answered at the meeting would be answered in writing in a later issue of the Standard Bearer. This prom-ise I now try to fulfill. Most of the questions are rather directly related to my lecture of that evening on the subject, “Why Are We Protestant Reformed?” Some, as you will see, are more distantly and indirectly related. I will not explain the relation of the question to my lecture: for this would require too much space. I think, however, that even those who did not hear my lecture will be able to understand and to benefit from the questions and answers. Incidentally, I will also briefly summarize my answer to the questions which were dealt with at the meeting.]
If the doctrine of common grace is wrong, or false, and man is totally depraved, how do you account for the good that man does? Or (how do you explain) Matthew 5:44-45, which indicates that God blesses all? Why did Jehu, a person who was not elect, do that which was right in the eyes of the Lord (II Kings 10:30)? Was not this only by the grace of the Lord?
First of all, whether man is totally depraved is not a question in Reformed Churches. According to Scripture and the Confessions, the natural man is by nature incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. That is total depravity. And if man is totally depraved, it follows, of course, that he cannot do good.
In the second place we have the question about the familiar passage in Matthew 5:44-48, which the reader may look up for himself. In regard to this, the following:
1) You must not simply appeal to isolated passages in Scripture. You must read the Scriptures in the light of the current teaching of Scripture. And that current teaching of Scripture in many, many places is that God does not love and bless all men, but that He hates and curses some. (I will not go into detail here. As our readers know, I have just discussed this subject in my series of editorials on the “Free Offer.”)
2) Notice carefully that the text does not say that God blesses all. This is a conclusion — and an incorrect one — from the statement of the text that God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Incidentally, the presupposition in this conclusion is that blessing (and cursing) is in things as such. This is a grave mistake. For if you conclude that good things are as such blessing and bad things are as such curses, then you must also conclude not only that God blesses the wicked reprobate, but that He curses His people when He sends them evil things.
3) The point of the text is this: we must love our enemies, which does not mean simply that we do them some good, bestow some good things on them, but that we show them the love of Christ. We bless when they curse; we do good to them when they hate; we pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us. The text means, therefore, that we must seek their genuine good. And that means that we must seek their repentance, seek their salvation. In that sense we must show them love. And in the case of those enemies, that love toward a wicked man is, so to speak, a one-way street; it is not a mutual love. It extends from you toward your enemy, but not from him toward you.
4) The point is, further, that we must do this for God’s sake. We must manifest to our enemies the love of God that is in us and that we have tasted. And thecharacter of the love of God is exactly such that it is a love that is capable of being merciful and kind to His enemies. Notice that I do not say that it is a love that is merciful and kind to all His enemies. But the character of the love of God is such that He loved us while we were yet enemies.
5) As a most general example of this fact that we must love our enemies, the Lord Jesus here points to God’s work in nature, where He causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
Next there is the question concerning Jehu. In connection with this question, let me refer the reader to a thorough treatment of this subject in a pamphlet available from our Business Office, and entitled, “The Curse Reward Of The Wicked Well-Doer.” In answer to the question, the following:
1) Notice that the text does not simply say that Jehu did good, but “thou hast done well in executing that which is right in my eyes.” That refers, therefore, to the outward deed, the executing. And what was that which was right in God’s eyes? It was the execution of judgment upon the whole house of Ahab. That was what Jehu did.
2) The question is whether that was a good deed on Jehu’s part. That it was right in God’s eyes, that Jehu did well in executing it, that he did a good job — there is no question about that. He did a very thorough job: there was nothing left of the house of Ahab when he was finished. But that he did good in the sight of God is an altogether different matter. The truth of the matter is that Jehu did not do this work for God’s sake, but that he did it for his own sake, because of his own opportunistic and carnal striving and desire to be king. And the proof of this lies in the fact, stated twice in the context in II Kings 10, that although Jehu was very zealous to execute the house of Ahab and to stamp out the worship of Baal, he nevertheless did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin.
3) And thus Jehu also had a reward. His reward was that his sons to the fourth generation would sit on his throne. He was the only king of Israel who had that happen to him. But if you study the history of those four generations which sat on his throne after him, you will discover that the reward of Jehu was indeed a curse-reward. Would you dare to think that it was a blessingfor Jehu to have descendants such as he had sitting on the throne? No, it would have been better for Jehu and for them, had they never been born. For not only did they follow in the wicked footsteps of their father, but they went from wickedness to wickedness, to ever deeper wickedness, until finally the northern kingdom became ripe, for judgment under their influence. And if you would like a further Scriptural commentary on Jehu and his house, and definite and clear Scriptural proof of God’s attitude toward the house of Jehu, I refer you to Hosea 1:4, where God instructs Hosea concerning the name of his son: “And the Lord said unto him, Call his name Jezreel; for yet a little while, and I will avenge the blood of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu, and will cause to cease the kingdom of the house of Israel.” There you have plain proof: a) that God’s attitude toward the house of Jehu was an attitude of wrath and vengeance, not favor b) that in shedding the blood of Jezreel (that is, slaying all the house of Ahab) though Jehu was very zealous to do this, he nevertheless sinned in the sight of the Lord. This is implied in the very fact that God “avenged” the blood of Jezreel. Vengeance is, of course, a recompense for evil.
Are you suggesting in your speech that the Protestant Reformed Churches are better or stronger church politically than a Secession movement like the De Cock movement of 1834 in the Netherlands or Secession movements in the 20th century in the U.S.A.? Also the Doleantie Movement in 1886? Would we be weaker doctrinally had we seceded? Is there something intrinsically wrong with secession? We are here because of secession, are we not, in the background of our history?
In the first place, I am not suggesting that the Protestant Reformed Churches are better or stronger church politically than the movement of 1834 or the movement of 1886. My point, in connection with my discussion of secession, was that we did not ruthlessly and recklessly trample the unity of the church, that we did not arbitrarily leave. I did not mean to say that separation is under every circumstance wrong. I would emphasize, however, that an act of secession is permissible and is right only when it has become fundamentally impossible for anyone to stay in his mother church.
In the second place, I meant to emphasize in connection with my remarks on this subject in my lecture, that we are a continuation, the continuation of the Reformed line that traces itself exactly over 1886 and 1834. That is necessary. The church that is divorced from the church of the past, the church of all ages, has no rightful claim to the name church. In the third place, we would not be weaker doctrinally if we had seceded. That as such has nothing to do with secession. I would emphasize, however, that the fundamental question in secession is the question ofdoctrine, the question of the truth of the Word of God. I would also emphasize in this connection that some of the secession movements in the 20th century have been extremely weak because they are doctrinally mixed and broad, and not confessionally strong. Reformation through separation, let me stress, is always a return to the truth of the Word of God; and it must be a complete and wholehearted return, involving the disavowal of all error, or it will never be successful.
Further, I would caution that today I can very well conceive of circumstances again where secession, as an act on the part of those who separate is necessary. Why? Because today you have the phenomenon in American churches, and also in churches abroad, that they have become so big and so loose, and the liberal element has become so strong, that they don’t care a snap of the fingers about a conservative element. Their attitude is: humor them, for they are harmless. They vow that they will not have heresy trials in their churches; and they vow that they will be a tolerant, modalities church. That is the thing that is coming to pass today, both here and abroad. And as a result they will not cast anybody out — not very easily. They will let you stay and die; and they will let your generations die, and let your conservative element die out. And therefore, for your very ecclesiastical and spiritual life’s sake, you have to separate.
I would also point out that as far as principles of church government are concerned, we exactly agree with the Secession of 1834 and with the Doleantie of 1886, with their emphasis on the autonomy of the local church and with their emphasis against hierarchy, their emphasis against the idea that classis and synod have the power to depose office bearers. It is Reformed to teach that it is only the power of the local consistory to preach, to administer sacraments, and to exercise discipline.
Finally, I would point out that there is a significant difference between the secession of 1834 and the origin of our Protestant Reformed Churches. We were expelled as consistories and congregations. In 1834 those who seceded did not act in their capacity as office bearers, but they acted by virtue of the office of all believers. You will discover this if you read their “Act of Secession.” But fundamentally 1834, 1886, and 1924 are alike in this: the deepest concern was the marks of the true church, namely, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. And that must always be the underlying concern of any reformation movement.
In what ways have the Protestant Reformed Churches developed the doctrine of the covenant? What is the organic idea of the covenant?
Pastor Van Baren was correct in his remark that this question is a subject in itself. It would make a fine subject for a lecture. Let me briefly point to some ways in which we have developed the doctrine of the covenant.
1. Our strong emphasis is upon the idea that the covenant is not a means to an end, but an end in itself — in fact, the end of all God’s work. Historically there have been two main types of views concerning the covenant. The one group of views was characterized by the fact that it considered the covenant a means to an end. Some have held that the covenant is a way of salvation. Others have said that the covenant is an agreement or contract between God and man, with mutual stipulations, conditions, and promises. Others have held that the covenant is an alliance between two parties against a third. Others have found the essence of the covenant to be the promise. All of these views run into difficulty with the fact that the covenant, according to Scripture, is everlasting. But if the covenant is some kind of means to an end, it stands to reason that when the end has been attained, the means falls away, no longer has any importance. That kind of covenant can hardly be called everlasting. We have emphasized that the covenant is not the means, but the end. It is the end of all the work of the God of our salvation. And when the perfection of that covenant is reached in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the new heavens and the new earth, when the tabernacle of God shall be with men in perfection, then that covenant, as it was conceived eternally in God’s counsel, shall continue forever and ever.
2. We have developed the doctrine of the covenant in our emphasis that the idea of the covenant is the bond of friendship between God and His people in Christ, established in the line of the generations of believers. Once one has become imbued with the beautiful, Scriptural idea of the covenant as the relation of friendship between God and His people in Christ, no other presentation of the covenant holds any attraction.
3. We have developed the idea of the covenant in our strong and Scriptural and Confessional emphasis upon the truth that God alone and sovereignly establishes and realizes His covenant, and that, too, along the lines of election and reprobation.
4. We have developed the idea of the covenant richly with our teaching concerning the organic idea of God’s covenant. The covenant is all-embracing. It is a key and pervading theme in Scripture. And let me add: the idea of the covenant is characteristically a Reformeddoctrine, equally, if not more so, than the doctrine of sovereign grace and sovereign predestination.
The second part of this question concerns the organic idea of the covenant. What does that imply? Very briefly, the following:
1. The organic idea implies that God’s covenant includes not merely man, not only God’s people, but the whole creation. God saves not merely a church, but the world. The brute creation, as well as the children of God, shall participate in the covenant in its everlasting perfection (Romans 8:10, ff.). Moreover, the whole creation is also involved in God’s work of establishing and realizing His covenant historically. All things are for the sake of the people of God in Christ. This, by the way, is very clearly the case with the covenant as it was established with Noah after the flood. That was not simply a covenant of nature, and certainly not a covenant of common grace. But it was God’s covenant with the church as it came out of the ark. And that covenant involved the whole creation for the sake of the church.
2. The organic idea implies, too, that God does not save merely some parts of the world and some parts of the human race, while the world as a whole goes lost and is destroyed. On the contrary, God saves His world, and glorifies it to everlasting perfection in Christ, while some individuals are destroyed and perish.
3. The organic idea of God’s covenant implies that God realizes His covenant in the line of generations, the generations of believers. God does not work individualistically. And this also implies that sovereign election and reprobation cut right across the generations of God’s covenant in history. This means that here in the midst of the world, God’s covenant people always exist historically as a mixed people. There is among them the true, spiritual seed, the true children of God, the elect heirs of the covenant. There is also among God’s people in the midst of the world the carnal element, which is born in the line of the covenant, circumcised in the old dispensation, baptized in the new, and in every respect outwardly treated as the true covenant children are. They have all things in common with the spiritual seed, except grace. They are born, and grow up, and live in the sphere of that covenant. They are baptized, the Word is preached to them, they receive catechetical instruction, etc. But they have no grace. For the true, spiritual seed all of this tends to their salvation; for the carnal element these very same things serve to harden them and are to their condemnation. This organic idea is illustrated in such Scriptural ideas as the wheat field, which also may have many tares; in the figure of the wheat and the chaff; in the figure of the vine with fruitful and unfruitful branches: and in the figure of the olive tree in Romans 11.
Finally, for some helpful reading on this subject, I refer you to a very instructive book, Believers And Their Seed, available through our Business Office.
If the group which left in ’53 wishes to return, must they confess to having lived in sin these many years? And if so, why? Are not they being asked to confess to satisfy man, rather than God? Why not, “Welcome home, Prodigal, join us in the true worship of our God.”
My answer to these questions is as follows:
1. My questioner really suggests the answer to this question in his final question, concerning the Prodigal. It seems to me that both in the parable itself and in the reality to which the parable points, the Prodigal was welcomed home exactly in the way of confession of sin.
2. Were the doctrinal errors of 1953, along with related matters, sin? Is false doctrine sin? Was it wrong in the sight of God and of His church to return to the Christian Reformed Church? Then, it seems to me, the sad fact is that as long as that sin is not repented of and forsaken, those concerned are living in that sin. And I would add that the very fact that many of them are vexing their souls and are extremely unhappy is also evidence of this fact.
3. I do not believe that confession of sin is ever a matter of “satisfying” man or God. We cannot make satisfaction for our sins; nor is this necessary, seeing that Christ has satisfied for all the sins of His people. But sin must be gotten out of the way, with the brethren, with the church, and before God. Forgiveness and reconciliation are in the way of confession. This, by the way, does not mean that everyone concerned in that departure made himself guilty of sin in the same way and in the same degree. There were those who were misled. There were those who were deceived. There were those who also very deliberately opposed the truth and sought the destruction of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
4. I would point out that confession of sin, where sin has been committed, is not a shame, but a reason for gladness and joy on the part of all concerned. I ask: why should this be such an obstacle to some? Confession is, of course, hard for the flesh and for our sinful pride. But for the child of God confession is to be viewed as a gift of grace in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Finally, I would assure those who sincerely desire to come back to our churches and to the precious truth and the pure preaching of the Word which we have, that when they come back wholeheartedly and in the right way, our people and our consistories will gladly receive them, so that they will find themselves at home among us. Do they desire the truth of God’s sovereign and particular promise and unconditional salvation which our Protestant Reformed Churches hold and preach? Then they will also repudiate the errors of a general promise and conditional salvation, errors which strike at the very heart of the Reformed truth. Hence, by all means, “Welcome home, Prodigal — in the way of whatever confession is necessary for reconciliation.”
[The rest of these questions will have to wait until the next issue of our magazine. Space does not permit my answering of the several questions which remain.]