Reformation Day, 1970 marks the 453rd anniversary of the Great Reformation. It also marks the 352nd anniversary of the Great Synod of Dordrecht. To the discerning Reformed Christian, the Synod of Dordrecht, noted, of course, chiefly for the Canons of Dordrecht, was not only involved in the never-ending process of reformation when it did battle against the Arminians and purged the church of their grave errors. But historically, the Synod of Dordrecht represents the climax of the Reformation. Frequently we fail to see the two as historically, as well as doctrinally, related. It was only about 100 years after that first act of reformation in 1517, and much less than 100 years after John Calvin began his reformatory work, that the truth of the Reformation came to its clearest and most beautiful expression in the Canons drawn up by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1618-’19. Dordrecht is the climax of Wittenberg and Geneva! At Dordrecht the central truth of the Reformation finally comes to its own!
Yet when one considers this fact and then looks at the church today, he is inclined to stand aghast. Dordrecht was not only a national Synod; and yet, while it was not really an ecumenical synod, or even an international synod, Dordrecht nevertheless represents the consensus of the Reformed churches in all of Europe at that time, all of whom had at least an advisory capacity at the Great Synod. This means that it was possible at that stage in history for the churches of the Reformed faith from all over the continent and from Great Britain to come together and to agree: to agree, moreover, on the truth! Dordt was Reformed, uncompromisingly Reformed! At Dordt you have the concrete manifestation and expression of the true reformational church: the church reformed and always reforming!
When one considers this fact by way of comparison with the situation in Reformed churches today—let alone in the church at large—one is filled with dismay at what he sees. The church today in comparison with the church at the time of Dordrecht presents, as far as the Reformed faith is concerned, a sorry spectacle! Men and churches are interested today in coming together. They are interested in what is called ecumenism. But they are interested in coming together not on the basis of the truth of our Reformed heritage, not in the interest of the truth, but at the expense of it!
One might well be inclined to ask: what is there to celebrate on Reformation Day?
But on the other hand, the only factor which can possibly make one take heart, which can possibly encourage and inspire one to continue to celebrate the Reformation in a real way—that is, as Reformed and ever reforming—the only thing which can motivate one truly to celebrate the Reformation in the face of such an apparently hopeless situation is the very faith to which Dordt gave expression and which is set forth most beautifully in Article 9 of the Canons of Dordrecht, Chapter II:
This purpose proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished, notwithstanding all the ineffectual opposition of the gates of hell, so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one, and that there never may be wanting a church composed of believers, the foundation of which is laid in the blood of Christ, which may steadfastly love, and faithfully serve him as their Savior, who as a bridegroom for his bride, laid down his life for them upon the cross, and which may celebrate his praises here and through all eternity.
In these words is expressed the motif of genuine celebration of the Reformation,—celebration not only in the sense of thankful commemoration of the great work of our God wrought in the Reformation, but also in the sense of renewed dedication to the great principles of the Reformation and to the motto, “Reformed and Ever Reforming.”
Without the confidence of the faith expressed in the words just quoted, one could indeed only stand aghast at the ecclesiastical scene of today and be filled with dismay and despair and discouragement.
The Heart And Its Beat
You will recognize that there is a figure of speech involved in the expression, “The Heart-Beat of the Reformation.” We are referring in this figure of speech to that for which the Reformation as a historical movement stood and stands, that is, its principles, the body of truth, the confession of faith, for which it stood and to which the Reformation constituted a very strong return. We are trying to express by means of this figure the very essence, the core, the central feature of the Reformation from this point of view. We are trying to depict that which is central, that from which all else may be explained, that which furnishes vitality, in the entire body of Reformation-truth.
The figure is that of a person, a man, with a heart and a heart-beat.
Hence, just as physically the heart is the center of a man’s existence, is that organ which controls and directs the bloodstream and the circulation, pumping the life-blood through the entire organism of the body constantly and supplying food and energy and life to all our organs and all the cells of our body; and just as spiritually, according to Scripture in Proverbs 4, the heart is the spiritual center of a man, determining what a man is spiritually, determining whether a man is good or evil, so that “from the heart are the issues of life;” so it is also ecclesiastically. Our fathers spoke of the cor ecclesiae, the heart of the church, intending to emphasize that there is a certain central truth which controls and directs and energizes and vitalizes the whole life and the very bloodstream and the whole organism of the church’s faith and confession, every aspect of the truth.
This same figure of speech implies the idea of theheart-beat. This element of the figure has reference to the action, the pumping, the pulsating, the throbbing of the heart, as it can be sensed and felt and heard—either directly, in the heart itself, or throughout all the reaches of the body in the pulse. This figure of the heart-beat may also be applied ecclesiastically, so that we may speak of the beating, the pulsating, the throbbing, of that one, central truth throughout the whole of the living confession of the church and throughout the whole of the body, the organism, of the truth and in all its parts.
Hence, when we speak of the heart-beat of the reformation, we refer to what our fathers called the “heart of the church” as the “heart of the Reformation;” and, secondly, to the beating, the pulsating, of that heart of the Reformation in the entire confession of the Reformed faith, the entire body of Reformation-truth.
The question is: what was—and what, properly, still is—that heart whose beat can be sensed and ought to be sensed throughout the body of the faith?
Our fathers answered—and correctly so, because they caught the keynote of the Reformation—they answered: election is the heart of the church. By this they meant, of course, the truth of eternal, sovereign election, together with its inseparable corollary,sovereign reprobation. In one term: sovereign predestination.
It is not our purpose here to expound in detail and to demonstrate from Scripture and the confessions in detail this truth of sovereign predestination. Let us rather look at some of the salient aspects: 1) Election is the eternal and sovereign and gracious decree of God to lead the church as the body of Christ, with all ifs individual members, each in his own position in that body, to eternal salvation and glory. Let us notice a few important features here. In the first place, election issovereign. That means, positively, that election proceeds from God’s eternal good pleasure as its source and reason. In the second place, election involves not a mere crowd of elect individuals, not a mob, but a body, a church, and all the members of that church individually. In the third place, predestination does not merely include the goal, the end, but also the way to that end. God’s election includes eternal salvation and glory and the way to that eternal salvation and glory in all of its aspects. In the fourth place, election is not arbitrary. It is not merely a cold and mechanical decree to save some (and to damn others); but election is in Christ Jesus our Lord, the Head of the elect church.
2) Sovereign predestination includes reprobation. Reprobation is the eternal and sovereign decree of God to determine some men to be vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction in the way of sin, as manifestations of His justice, and to serve the purpose of the realization of His elect church. Again, let us notice a few elements which need emphasis here. In the first place, election and reprobation are absolutely inseparable. Predestination is double predestination, or it is not at all. It is impossible to maintain election without maintaining reprobation. You can readily understand that this is in the very nature of the case. It makes no real difference here whether you speak the mild, infralapsarian language of a “leaving” or “passing by” in reprobation, or whether you speak of a positive rejection, election itself implies that there are those who are not included in that divine decree of election, but excluded. In the second place,—and this is important, too—reprobation is also sovereign, not conditional. It does not take place on the basis of foreseen sin and unbelief. It also proceeds from God’s eternal good pleasure. Again, whether you speak of an active and positive rejection or merely of a passing by—and we need not quibble about that here—it issovereign. It takes place according to God’s eternal good pleasure, though the decreed damnation is historically realized in the way of man’s own unbelief and sin. It is of the utmost importance that this be maintained. You cannot maintain an unconditional election and a conditional reprobation. If the one is sovereign, the other is also sovereign. If the one is conditional, the other is necessarily conditional also. In the third place, it is important to remember that historically it has always been that doctrine of reprobation especially which was first disliked and rejected and discarded, and this led inevitably to the corrupting and discarding of the truth of sovereign election. This is the case today, too. It is the doctrine of reprobation (Canons I, 15) which is under strong attack in Reformed churches; and the attempt is being made by some to modify and corrupt it.
Together these two—sovereign election and sovereign reprobation—are called sovereign predestination, or foreordination, that is, God’s eternal and sovereign decree, counsel, will, with respect to the destiny of His moral creatures, men and angels.
3) In the broadest sense of the word, predestination is not limited merely to the salvation and damnation of men and angels; but it includes God’s eternal and all comprehensive counsel with respect to all things. It includes the entire universe and its destiny and the way to that destiny. The divine purpose of election and reprobation constitutes the center, the focal point, of God’s eternal plan and purpose, round about which all other things in that counsel are arranged and with which they stand in connection as means to end.
Thus, briefly, we would describe the heart of the Reformation.
And the beat of that heart is the heart-beat of the Reformation.
That means, therefore, not merely that this truth of sovereign predestination is one of the important Reformation truths, or even the most important in rank. But it means that it is the heart! It is that which controls and directs and energizes the entire life-stream of the organism of the truth. Properly, the beat of that heart must be felt not only in the doctrine concerning God, but in the doctrine concerning creation and the fall, and providence, and the atonement, and salvation, and in the doctrine of the church itself, and in the doctrine of the last things, and the doctrine of everlasting glory, the everlasting state—so that in all these truths you can sense, can feel, can detect clearly the pulse-beat, the lively throbbing, of that heart, the truth of sovereign predestination.
The Importance Of The Heart
Let us look at the central importance of that heart of the Reformation and its beat. Let us do that by referring to the figure of the human heart, and by way of contrast.
Ask the question: what happens if a man has heart trouble? His heart is central. The entire organism of his body is dependent upon his heart. The health, the wellbeing, of the whole body is dependent upon that central organ. If his heart is diseased, the body is bound to be affected throughout. And depending on the seriousness of the disease which afflicts his heart, he becomes weak, is probably forced to be inactive, and he can finally be fatally affected.
The same is true ecclesiastically with respect to this “heart of the Reformation” and its beat.
Let that heart beat weakly, or let it beat diseasedly, or let the beat of that heart cease altogether: the entire organism of the church’s confession, faith, life, is inevitably affected. Obviously the doctrine of God is at stake: principally, if you deny the doctrine of sovereign predestination, you lose God and you enthrone man on God’s throne. The truth of creation and providence and the fall is affected: these truths become disconnected from God’s other works. Such diseases result as the doctrine of a universal Fatherhood of God and its corollary, the universal brotherhood of man. When that heart does not beat properly, you get such errors as the covenant of works, common grace in the Kuyperian sense of the word, the denial of total depravity. When the beat of that heart does not influence the doctrine concerning Christ, you get, as is well known, the error of universal atonement. When that beat does not energize the doctrine of salvation—the doctrines of regeneration, calling, faith, justification, sanctification, preservation—then salvation becomes a cooperative work of God and man, or it becomes a matter of a general, well-meant offer of salvation, dependent upon the will of man. The disease of freewillism results. The doctrine of the church is likewise affected: principally, when you lose that heart-beat, the whole truth of the holy catholic church is afflicted. The doctrine of the last things is affected: when that heart-beat is not healthy, principally you stand in danger of falling either into the error of pre-millennialism or the error of post-millennialism. The principle of the antithesis is affected necessarily: when that heart-beat does not make itself felt, that principle is watered down and finally lost. You lose the other aspect of the seal upon God’s foundation (II Tim. 2:19). You lose this: “let him that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” And you lose it because you have lost what precedes it: “The Lord knoweth them that are his.” And the blessedness of the assurance and certainty of salvation is lost, too. When that heart does not beat rightly, you finally lose the solidness of the solid comfort, of our only comfort in life and death.
And thus it is with the whole of the Christian faith. There are even effects of this heart-beat with respect to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and the whole idea of revelation which is much discussed today. You cannot properly maintain the truth of organic inspiration, for example, without the truth of sovereign predestination.
The heart and its beat, therefore, are of central importance.
(to be continued)