As believers within the Protestant Reformed Churches, we have reason for thanks—thanksgiving to God for preserving us in His truths, and for His preserving various truths in our assemblies.
At the same time, we acknowledge we must be wary of allowing thanksgiving to transform itself into unseemly self-congratulations when we see what is happening to other denominations not so blessed. As if we have made ourselves to differ! As if we cannot lose what has been passed on to us! What is our esteem for sound doctrine if it does not promote in us humility before God and men?
That having been said, we reiterate, we have much reason for thankfulness to God for preserving us in sound doctrines, doctrines that, if they go lost, would lead to an impoverishment of life beyond words. This was brought home to me in a couple of ways recently.
The first instance was that of a death just three months ago in my own congregation—a young daughter, about the age of the daughter of Jairus, was lifted by the hand of Jesus to glory in an automobile accident. A heart-wrenching separation for her family. That Sunday morning we turned as congregation to Romans 8:17, 18. The apostle, having pointed out that children of God are joint-heirs with Christ to His glory, goes on to declare that he “reckon[ed] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Words of greatest comfort and of encouragement of hope—a most practical word.
And then it struck me, these words of Paul are imbedded in the most doctrinal of books. Romans is the “Mt. Everest” of doctrinal books. Once again I was reminded that there is nothing so important for life as correct, true, and biblical theology.
We live in an age when the whole of Christendom disparages theology. “Who needs theology? Just give us the practical, that is, tell us how to live and get along with each other. As for the manna of theology, we weary of it. Of what use is it, except to divide?”
And then comes death, and, perhaps, tragic death. Is anything more practical than death? When death strikes, there is nothing in the whole of one’s life more important than that death. It puts the life of the living themselves on hold. And the question that takes hold of one like the grasp of a drowning man is, “Who or what shall answer to this death! What possible answer is there in the whole wide world?”
And then the vital importance of theology, of God-glorifying, biblically sound, soul-comforting theology comes home. Because without it there is no answer to the destructive power of death. Without it, death has the last word.
The heart and soul of theology revealed was ordained by God with death in mind. For, “Since by man came death,” so by a man must come “the resurrection from the dead” (I Cor. 15:21). And what a man that man would have to be! For there to be any real hope at all, He would have to be nothing less than God Himself in our flesh. Nothing less, no one less, would do. It is the theology of Christ Jesus, and who He is (in very truth, God the Son in our flesh), that alone answers to the sting of death, to the curse of the law, and who alone could be the propitiation for sin and the justifier of those who believe (Rom. 3:26).
It is in the context of death and what death is and does (“The wages of sin is death!”— Rom. 6:22) that one understands and glories in the doctrines Paul spells out in his Epistle to the Romans.
At the time of death, thanks be to God for the wonder of His truth of justification by faith alone! For “by faith alone” means that it is by grace alone (Rom. 4:16 and Rom. 11:6). And what is “faith alone” but shorthand for saying “by Christ alone,” by His death and righteousness alone?
If, at the time of death, it is not “by Christ’s righteousness alone,” what is the option? This: Did I do enough? Did my loved one do enough? The dying loved one asks, “But what about all my sins and disobediences, those wrongs I did against you and others?” Imagine having to reply, “Do not worry, my love. I am sure, pretty sure at least, that you have done enough to make up for all those lamentable sins of yours. Keep thinking of the good things you did too. Those should be worth something, you know.”
And that’s going to bring peace to a troubled soul?
If that’s how it is, purgatory makes more sense all the time.
God preserve us from the corruptions of Rome and those of her stepchildren, the Federal Vision men. God be thanked, so far He has.
In addition, thanks be to God for the theology of the sovereignty of God we hold so dear, a doctrine that looms large in Romans (cf. Rom. 8-11). Practically speaking, it means God controls and directs all things that happen, not only the good and pleasant, but also the hard and severe. Yes, sudden death that brings such sorrow too.
Without the assurance that God in His sovereign wisdom and power is directing every event of life, including the most severe that brings death, with what are you left? This: God surely did not plan this to happen. God did not want this to happen. It could have gone otherwise.
Well, then, why did it happen? I made a number of untimely decisions, that’s why. If only I had done this or that instead, it all could have been avoided.
A life of endless regrets. “It was all my fault.” What a terrible way to have to deal with death.
And you can take Romans 8:28 with its comfort and throw it out the window as well. “For all things work together for good to them who love God, who are the called according to his purpose.”
But grab hold of God’s sovereignty and one can say, “Yes, I believe that the all-wise God is using even the grim reality of this death for the larger purpose of the victory of His cause. This death too is not without purpose in the tapestry of God’s saving design.”
Theology—apostolic, biblically sound theology—is the only thing that can answer to the power of death and quicken a hope that is real.
Of what practical use is sound biblical theology, indeed! The whole of one’s hope and peace hinges on it. Without it, one is left defenseless against that last enemy. With it one can stand at the lip of the grave and still sing songs of victory, though it be through tears. “O death, where is thy sting!” And “Death, thou shalt die!”
The other instance that reminded me forcibly of why we should be thankful to God for His preserving in our churches a continuing esteem for biblically-sound theology was the notice that our “mother church,” the CRC, is celebrating her sesquicentennial this year, or if you prefer, her one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary (AD 1857-2007). A transcript of a speech by Dr. J.C. Schaap entitled “What About a Bicentennial?” placed in Dordt College’s Pro Rege (Sept. 2007) reminded me. It had slipped my mind. Such a significant anniversary should not pass without comment in the SB.
But what are we, whose spiritual forbears were expelled from the CRC’s assemblies, supposed to say? Congratulations? All the best? Thanks be to God for your faithful witness over the years? Somehow, such does not fit. A passage comes to mind, but it is not a pleasant one. It is the words of our Lord in Luke 13:34: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together . . . , but ye would not . . . .”
What Schaap has to say brings home into just what a sad spiritual condition our mother church has fallen, a denominational malaise of lost Reformed identity, knowledge, and biblical soundness of life, a spiritual confusion that we might well be sharing with her members if not for the Lord’s providential deliverance of our spiritual forbears in 1924-25.
Commenting on the massive loss of numbers the CRC has experienced during the last few decades, estimated to be in the neighborhood of 30,000, Schaap wryly writes, “In the last thirty years the denomination has hemorrhaged from every possible orifice and it’s as much a blessing as a wonder we’ve survived at all. But we have. Sort of.” (p. 28)
No, things are not at a high-water mark in the denomination, to say the least. Even Schaap, who wants to put the best face possible on matters, is forced to acknowledge it. Commenting on what has taken place in his own congregation in Sioux Center, Iowa (once called First CRC) just over the last three decades, Dr. Schaap writes:
Thirty years ago, First Church was always packed, even the balcony, even—mostly—at night. Bona fide “oncers” were around, but there weren’t many. Thirty years ago, with that commanding prof. [a conductor of music] at the helm, the whole roof jumped with our singing, several hundred souls booming out much beloved hymns in four-part harmony.
By a pilgrimage through local churches, my wife and I now worship with a different congregation, but in the very same building as old First Church. Today, that building is, at best, half full. On Sunday nights (we’re still among the traditional) we worship—but the gathering is far smaller, smaller and, well, “oncer.” On Sunday nights, a praise team stands up front and tries to inspire the meager faithful. Anyone can lead. You don’t have to be a musician, you just have to want to praise the Lord. We’re far more democratic. But even with the praise team at the front leading maybe a hundred souls, we barely reach a decibel level high enough to reach the vacant balcony.
Much of what we sing frequently has the feel of ballads, not anthems, they’re introspective, love songs that carry no marching orders; instead, music nurtures us in the therapeutic character of our culture: Jesus is love, and he loves me. Even if the sanctuary were packed, the more contemporary music itself couldn’t generate the massive timbre that once filled the very same physical space.
Indeed, change has taken place, a diminishing by all accounts. Schaap goes on to note:
Who would have guessed, a half century ago, that people who worshipped in the building we worship in today would be discussing—as many of us already have—the issues related to the viability of the second service; who would have guessed we’d have elders who are oncers [sic!—kk]—or women, for that matter?.. Who knows what [another] fifty years will bring? Who knows if the Lord should tarry? (pp. 35-36).
Indeed, as Schaap senses, something is missing, something deeply spiritual. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, for all his reserved hopefulness for his church’s future, Schaap has come very close to uttering the word “Ichabod!” (the glory has departed) over his own denomination.
And why, pray tell, has all this come to pass?
In what may well be the most enlightening statement in his whole historical assessment, Schaap declares what, in his opinion, it most certainly is not! Lest there be someone who “…might assume that the dramatic changes in the ways in which we see denominational life have been caused by a decline in orthodoxy (sic!),” Schaap, in dogmatic fashion, flat out states, “He’s wrong. The fact is, we live in a different world” (p. 19).
Not doctrinal departure, mind you, but simply the environment of our age is the stated cause.
Most enlightening, I say, when it comes to insight into a willful blindness. It is called “living in denial.” And as long as the root cause of her sad deterioration goes unacknowledged and unconfessed by her officebearers, for our 150-year-old mother church there shall be “Reformation no more.”
Is such reason for thanksgiving on our part?
Not at all. We do not glory in the plight and sad withering of our mother church. Rather, we grieve and shake our heads. How the glory has departed.
But for this we do give thanks, namely, for forbears who were so committed to the sound theology of particular, effectual grace that they would have nothing to do with the incipient modernism behind the infamous Three Points of Common Grace, and for the sake of sound theology were willing to be expelled from their own denomination and begin anew. All in the interest of sound theology—and theology’s practical benefits.
They entrusted to us a goodly heritage. Its pedigree is thoroughly Reformed and Apostolic. Their commitment to sound doctrine and biblical theology has spared us many griefs and untold spiritual impoverishment.
Thanks be to the God of all comfort and truth.