Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Afscheiding (Secession) of 1834 was a true reformation of the church. It was a work of God through the Spirit of the exalted Christ by which the true church of Christ was delivered from the apostate state church (Hervormde Kerk). The Afscheiding is, therefore, part of the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
That the Afscheiding was a true reformation of the church does not mean that there were no problems, differences, divisions, or disagreements among the many people and leaders who left the state church and joined the movement. One of those differences was the question of the well-meant gospel offer. It is that difference that is the subject of this article.
It is not possible to understand this crucially important difference over the preaching of the gospel without going back over a century to developments in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
While the Afscheiding is certainly to be explained against the background of the apostate state church (the only Reformed Church in the whole of the Netherlands), that apostasy had been a long time present. Amazingly, that apostasy had begun a little over fifty years after the great victory of the Synod of Dordt in the conflict with Arminianism. Over the years, that apostasy worsened, until God’s people could hardly bear to worship in their own or even other congregations. The worship was sinful, and the gospel was not preached. The souls of the saints were not being fed.
The result of such a spiritual agony as the faithful people of God were enduring was the formation of gezelschappen(conventicles or house meetings). In these house meetings, usually held on the Lord’s Day, saints came together to study and discuss God’s Word, read old writers who were Reformed, and pray together to bring their collective needs to the throne of grace.
Not all these gezelschappen were equally orthodox. This could hardly be expected when the people had no leader and the members were frequently of the uneducated lower class. One more gifted, more educated, and more fluent of speech, if such could be found, would assume a leadership role as anoefenaar, or exhorter, who was not an ordained minister, but who could give the people some guidance.
In their search for sound Reformed writings, they came across the writings of some Scottish theologians who, as it seemed to the members of the conventicles, struck the right spiritual note of genuine inner piety. The faithful in Scotland faced many of the same problems as the faithful in the Netherlands. A state church existed also in Scotland, and, like the state church in the Netherlands, had become corrupt in that land in the north of the British Isles. Differences did, however, exist. The state church in Scotland was not asdoctrinally apostate as the state church in the Netherlands; but the Scottish church was extremely worldly and carnally minded, and could rightly be accused of dead orthodoxy.
The faithful in the church in Scotland were gratified by the creedal orthodoxy of the church (such as it was), but the looseness of morals and the wicked lives members lived filled them with dismay. They concluded, rightly, that the problem was “a religion of the head, but not of the heart.” And this they set about to correct with an emphasis on piety. Piety was defined as a genuine conversion of the heart, rooted in a deep conviction of sin and a need of Christ’s sacrifice, and a life of holiness that followed on “closing with Christ,” an expression much used among the godly in Scotland.
The difficulty is that these people had no true conception of the covenant and of conversion within the covenant. And so they expressed the fruit of biblical preaching in terms of evidences of conversion in the lives of people, among which evidences was conviction of sin. Here is where some introduced into the thinking of people the idea of a well-meant gospel offer. Those who were under the conviction of sin were not yet converted and brought to Christ; in their misery and anxiety over sin they had to be urged to come to Christ. The offer of the gospel, expressing God’s love for them, God’s desire to save them, God’s assuring them that He had done all to make their salvation possible and real, was the way to accomplish this goal and bring convicted sinners to Christ.
The piety of these men in Scotland appealed to the people in the Netherlands who faced the same problems of moral laxity and worldliness in their own churches. And so the ideas prevalent among the concerned people on the other side of the North Sea were adopted in the conventicles, and the writings of Scottish theologians were avidly read. The result was that the idea of a well-meant gospel offer entered into the thinking of some of these people. Because of their emphasis on holiness, they became known as Pietists.
When the Afscheiding, under the leadership of deCock, took place, those who rushed to form new congregations, as deCock had done in Ulrum, were, for the most part, from the conventicles. One characteristic of the movement in its earlier years was the drastic shortage of ministers. The situation was so serious that many of those who were oefenaars(exhorters) in the conventicles, now assumed the same role in newly established congregations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the idea of the well-meant offer entered into the thinking of the Afscheiding churches. Not all the ministers and members of theAfscheiding churches by any means accepted the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer. In her book Son of Secession: Douwe J. VanderWerp, Janet Sheeres speaks of the fact that there were serious doctrinal divisions among the seceders. Generally speaking, there were two factions in the churches: a so-called Groningen faction (richting) and a Gelderse faction (richting). The Groningen faction was strongly orthodox and was intent on maintaining the confessions. It was found chiefly in the provinces of Groningen and Friesland. The Gelderse faction was primarily in the south and had leanings towards Arminianism.
The leaders of the Afscheiding in the north were deCock and VanVelzen. The leaders in the south were Brummelkamp, Helenius deCock (Hendrik de Cock’s son), and, to a lesser extent, VanRaalte. The story is told (I cannot vouch for its accuracy) that when Hendrik deCock heard that Brummelkamp was preaching a well-meant offer, he said: “Hij is geen broer; hij is e’n neef” (He is no brother; he is a nephew).
When the seceders felt the need for a seminary and one was established in Kampen, both factions were represented, the northern or orthodox faction by VanVelzen, and the south or more liberal faction by Brummelkamp and Helenius deCock. The graduates from the school were themselves divided, and the more orthodox congregations in the north did not want graduates who showed the influences of the teachings of Brummelkamp and Helenius deCock.
So the well-meant gospel offer appeared in the thinking of theAfscheiding churches, and many within those churches came to believe this doctrine. They were committed to the idea that God desires to save all who hear the gospel and expresses His own hope that those who hear will surely come to Christ to find their salvation in Christ’s blood. God assures men that, on His part, He has done all that He can to make salvation available to them. It remains the responsibility of the hearers to attend to the words of the gospel and obey the command to “close with Christ.”
This Arminian strain was present in theAfscheiding from its very inception. It has endured in many churches who trace their origin back to the Secession of 1834. The Western Michigan settlements were composed primarily of people of the Secession, and both strains of thinking could be found in the settlements: the more orthodox northern faction and the more Arminian southern faction. Thus the idea of a well-meant offer entered the thinking of the Christian Reformed Church.
In the Netherlands, the Secession of 1834 was followed by the Doleantie led by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. One could not find the teachings of the well-meant offer in Kuyper’s reformatory movement, because Kuyper himself was completely opposed to it. But when the Afscheidingand the Doleantie (Kuyper’s reformatory movement) merged in 1892, the well-meant gospel offer came along into the merged churches, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland. Since then, the GKN has merged with the old state church and a Lutheran denomination to form the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), a completely apostate denomination.
The Christian Reformed Church, in its history in the late Eighties and early Nineties, reflected the same divisions as were to be found in the Afscheidingchurches, divisions that were made worse by the adoption of Kuyperian common grace in the denomination. The divisions were healed, and peace was restored, by the adoption of the three points of common grace by the Synod of the CRC in Kalamazoo in 1924. Because of that settlement of the problem, many orthodox and faithful, from both the Afscheiding and theDoleantie, came out of the CRC to form the Protestant Reformed Churches in America.