Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
How striking, that while the apostles were still living there were church members who neglected some or all of the worship services. The writer to the Hebrews makes clear that it is the calling not only of the elders but of the membership in general to exhort in regard to this spiritual laxity. Urgency is sounded in the words, “so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” That is the day of Christ’s return! The days prior to His return are evil days, days of persecution, lawlessness, false prophets, and apostasy. Only the exposition and application of the Word of God is sufficient to comfort, warn, and correct in such fearful days. And if the church needed to heed these words two thousand years ago, how much greater urgency of heeding them today!
Shall God set a table of heavenly benefits before His people, call them to that table, and His people not come? Today attendance at many churches is falling off, and attendance at the second service in many cases can only be called shameful. As those who were bidden to a great banquet in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:15ff. had all kinds of excuses for not coming (I have bought a piece of ground, or five yoke of oxen, or married a wife), so there are all kinds of excuses for absence from church today. It’s too hot or too cold. The pews are too hard. The minister is long-winded or too doctrinal. I went this morning. I have school work to finish. I’m tired. I want to catch a game or a special on television, etc. Do people who limp along on these excuses know with whom they have to do? And do they understand what takes place in preaching services? We have to do with God, who makes it possible that almost without exception we can be in church twice. And in the preaching of the gospel, not a mere man is holding forth, but Jesus Christ is speaking through His ambassadors (John 10:16; Rom. 10:1-17; Eph. 4:21). It is our privilege in the worship services not merely to hear about Christ, but to hear Christ Himself speaking to us.
Already in A.D. 109, according to a letter written by the unbeliever Pliny to the Emperor Trajan after investigating the Christian church in Lythinia, “the Christians assembled on an appointed day (Sunday) at sunrise… Afterwards (at evening) they assembled again to eat ordinary and innocent food (the agape).”1 During the Middle Ages the preaching of the gospel warned, and ritual and sacerdotalism held sway. Often the priests did not preach at all for several months—which may have been just as well, since most of them had no theological training and many of them had no theological training and many of them could not read or write. dressed and drive to church; their souls are not being fed. Many stop coming, and others raise a clamor for something, almost anything! In response, and in desperation, worship committees arrange for crowd-drawing and crowd-pleasing entertainments. An evangelist is hired periodically to revive the congregation. Musical groups are brought in to please the youth. Films are shown and plays are given to hold the attention of those raised on television. As liturgical innovations multiply, the devil laughs and the angels weep. Hard to say who is to blame for the silencing of preaching in the second service. Can the death of the morning service be far behind?
On the whole, our churches are full in the evening services. The youth are to be commended for coming up to God’s house twice on the Lord’s Day. But let us not rest on our laurels. When there are empty seats, when some do stay away a number of times, let us “exhort one another; and so much the more as we see the day approaching!” And if we find ourselves preferring other houses to the house of God, other books to the Bible, other tables to the Lord’s table, and other activities to the hour of prayer, let us take alarm! Confess the laxity, turn from the worldly-mindedness, root out the spiritual problem that is in us. Earthly life can get no better, or rise any higher, than to be sitting with the saints at the feet of Jesus, our chief Teacher and Prophet.
The practice of conducting two preaching services on Sunday spread, after the Reformation, from Germany and Switzerland to other European countries including the Netherlands. Through wars and under persecution these services continued in the Reformed churches in the northern lowlands. Today it is reported, sadly, that many Reformed churches in the Netherlands have only one service, and some have closed their doors altogether. But through various emigrations from the Netherlands to North America, the practice of morning and evening services has survived, and is thriving among us. The Church Order of Dordt, and subsequent decisions and documents, require this of us. The call letter in use among us stipulates that the minister shall preach twice on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Supper is to be administered every two or three months, preceded by a preparatory sermon and followed by an applicatory sermon, implying two weekly services. The questions for church visitation contain the inquiry whether the minister preaches twice on the Lord’s Day according to the original form of these questions. But there is one respect in which the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and we differ from the church in its previous history. Preaching the Heidelberg Catechism is required in one of the two services.
After the Heidelberg Catechism was published in Germany (1563), Calvinistic churches in various countries began to preach the Catechism in their services. When news of this reached the Netherlands in 1574, a Dutch synod decided to allow the practice. It became mandatory for all the Reformed churches according to Article 61 of the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage (1586). With minor revisions this article was adopted by the Synod of Dordt (1618-19) and is found in further-revised form as Article 68 of our Church Order. Originally, the Catechism was to be preached in the afternoon service, further evidence that two services were required in the churches. But many of the people did not appreciate Catechism preaching. Some thought it too doctrinal. Others objected that it was the preaching of the word of man. Many began to stay home in the afternoon to register their objections.
The situation was serious enough for it to appear on the agenda of the great Synod of Dordt. Dordt discovered the reasons for poor attendance at these services to be: ministers failing to hold services at all in the afternoon, people insisting on working or playing on Sunday afternoon, the Arminians objecting to Catechism preaching(!), and the government failing to maintain Sunday as the day of rest and allowing certain field labors.7 The Synod maintained the decision of 1586 and stated that ministers who failed to preach the Catechism were to be censured. Ministers were to continue these services even if their families were the only people in attendance. And the church visitors were instructed to take close note of this matter in every congregation.
We generally preach the Catechism in the morning service, when minds are fresh and people are most alert. But some of the old cavils against Catechism preaching can be heard in the churches today. Too much doctrine! Have they never heard that the first great profit of having the inspired Scriptures isdoctrine? The time has indeed come “when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Tim. 4:3). In these days of shallow “Christianity,” of ignorance and indifference, of subjective feelings, of sharing and being sincere, the churches need to hear “the sum of Christian doctrine comprehended in the Heidelberg Catechism.” Then all the counsel of God is preached, and it is preached according to a standard adopted by the churches and agreed to by the membership.
How the Catechism is to be preached, i.e., what use is to be made of the Scriptures in this regard, we will not treat. Recent articles on these pages have done so. But that Catechism preaching is not preaching the Word of God is a charge that must be answered here. First, look at the proof-texts in the margins of the Catechism. Every phrase and teaching is solidly grounded in the Word of God, and many more texts could be adduced. Next, look at the many quotes from the Bible to be found in the questions and answers themselves. Then, notice the biblical terminology or vocabulary that is employed. But, above all, see that the truth that the Catechism sets forth is biblical truth! Let the preacher show that clearly, with a proof-text here and there, with a biblical example at the appropriate time, that the congregation is aware, yes, is convinced, that the Word of God is being preached. For when we rightly preach the Catechism, we are preaching the Word of God as surely as when we preach on a text or passage from the Bible. This practice of truly Reformed churches does not equate the Bible and the Catechism in the area of infallibility and authority. This practice does appreciate the biblical truth that the Catechism contains. Are there errors in the Catechism? That is possible, since it is a document written by men. Have you found one? Show it to your consistory. Do not count on it.
1 History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963. Vol. I, p. 222.
2 Op. cit., Vol. VI, p. 672.
3 Op. cit., Vol. VII, p. 488.
4 The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Cabin by Philip Hughes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966. p. 40.
5 The Reformation by Owen Chadwick. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, p. 420.
6 Op. cit., p. 418.
7 The Church Order Commentary by VanDellen and Monsma. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1941. pp. 278-279.