* Speech delivered by transcription on the Field Day, July 4, ‘44.
Twenty years ago today the Christian Reformed Church, convened in synodical gathering in Kalamazoo, Michigan, was travailing in the pangs of birth, about to be delivered of a doctrinal child. She labored hard, and even though some ten days before mother had been taken to the hospital, and a consultation of expert doctors and professors had been held, that had given detailed advice just how this particular case should be treated, when finally mother was brought to the synodical delivery room, it seemed as if there were no strength to bring forth. Some doctors even expressed as their opinion that the whole thing was premature, and that the consulting experts had been mistaken as to the time of delivery. They advised to wait, and to send mother back home until the time should be fulfilled for her to be delivered. For days she labored in vain. On the evening of the third of July, 1924, it was decided to allow her a few days of respite. The expert doctors would return on the seventh of July, determined, if still it seemed as if the expected child could not be brought forth in the normal and natural way, to force the birth, or to perform a Caesarean operation if necessary. And thus it happened. During the interval between the third and the seventh of July, some of the experts made special study of the case, and on the evening of the latter date the delivery was forced. And mother gave birth to triplets! The firstborn bore a remarkable resemblance to old Arminius, and was called GENERAL GRACE; the second and third strongly suggested kinship with Pelagius, and, accordingly, their names were called SIN-RESTRAINT and MAN’S RIGHTEOUSNESS respectively.
Somehow the sons, of the Christian Reformed Church, if I may make myself guilty of an inevitable mixture of metaphor, for I am now speaking of sons of flesh and blood, looked with grave suspicion upon these three doctrinal children, whose birth had been forced at the Synod of Kalamazoo. In fact, they insisted that they were not born of the Spirit and of the Word, but were children of adultery, and that, therefore, they should be expelled from the Christian Reformed home and family. However, mother refused to admit that she had played the harlot with Arminius and Pelagius, grew angry with her faithful sons, and cast them out of her house as bastards and not sons. These, being so cruelly and unjustly exiled, built their own home, and re-established their normal family life. And ever since, they claim that their re-established home and family are the proper Reformed heritage, and that they are the true and legal sons of the Protestant Reformation in the Calvinistic line, while the Christian Reformed Church is an adulterous woman, and they that justify her adulterous ways are bastards, and not sons.
This claim must always anew be emphasized and sustained, especially since our former adulterous mother and her unfaithful sons do not grow weary of repeating that we were expelled from home because we were rebellious, refractory, and stiff-necked children, that refused to heed wise and proper admonition. In other words, over against the doctrinally false and church-politically unjust attitude of the Christian Reformed Church we constantly face the obligation to maintain that not they, but we represent the proper continuation of the historical line of the Reformed faith, and the true Church of God in the world. What, then, could be more proper, on this twentieth anniversary of the “Three Points” than to examine the criterion according to which it must always be determined whether a certain visible church represents the true Church Catholic, and speak to you for a few moments on:
The Marks of the True Church.
What is the idea of what is known as the marks of the Church? How are they possible, and why should they be necessary? In general, we may answer that the marks, of the Church are such manifestations of the Church of Christ in the world as serve to identify a certain gathering of believers and their children on earth as a representation of the true body of Christ. They are characteristics by which the true Church may be recognized. The Church is the gathering of the elect into the spiritual body of Christ. This gathering is affected by the Son of God Himself by His Spirit and Word. It is made out of the whole human race, and throughout the ages of history. This gathering, though made in the world, and out of the world, is not of this world. It is not physical but spiritual. It is not earthly, but essentially heavenly. The attributes of this Church are catholicity, unity, and holiness as we confess in the Apostolicum: “I believe an holy catholic church.”
But we must understand at once that as such this Church is an object of faith, not of our experience or of human perception. Essentially, the Church is invisible, not in the sense that God is invisible, but in the sense that she escapes our human and earthly perception. We believe and confess that the Church is catholic, that is, the same all over the world and among all nations, as well as throughout all the ages of history. But this catholic Church is not as such perceived. On the earth we perceive but local churches, separated not only by reason of natural differences due to distance and distinctions of a national and lingual nature, but also because of doctrinal divisions, and opposing articles of faith. We believe that the Church is one, one in hope and faith and love, one in Christ through the one Spirit; but here on earth we behold a church that appears rather hopelessly divided, the separate divisions of which refuse to recognize one another as belonging to the true spiritual body of Christ, each with its own creed, its own ritual, and its own program of action. We believe that the Church of Christ is holy, holy in her Head, washed in the blood of the Lamb, sanctified in the Spirit, consecrated to God, and separated from the world. But in actual fact we see very little of this holiness. On the contrary, we perceive a gathering that is marred by much sin, hatred and envy, corruption and debauchery, division and schism, wrangling and controversy.
For this reason the distinction was always made between the Church visible and invisible. By this distinction was never meant that there are two churches, one visible and another invisible, a church within the church. The distinction does not refer to the fact that within the scope of the church in the world there are hypocrites, so that the church visible is the gathering of believers including the hypocrites, while the church invisible represents the true body of the elect and spiritual members of Christ. But it means that the Church, as the spiritual, heavenly body of Christ, catholic and holy, is essentially invisible, but that through certain expressions and signs this invisible Church becomes visible in the world in the earthly gathering of believers and their children. As far as the Church as an organization is concerned this visible manifestation of the invisible, spiritual body of Christ is effected by the confession and walk of the believers. Wherever a group of believers are gathered in the name of Christ, and confess their faith in Him, and seal their confession by a godly walk, there the Church invisible becomes visible on earth. But the marks of the Church do not refer to the manifestation of the invisible body of Christ as an organism, but to the identification of the Church as she is instituted by Christ in the world, through the offices of ministers, elders, and deacons, and the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. And the marks of the Church are those characteristics by which the invisible body of Christ, gathered and instituted in the world, may be recognized.
But more must be said. For these marks of the Church do not merely serve the purpose of indicating the institution of the Church, and of distinguishing it from all other institutions on earth as the manifestation of Christ’s spiritual body, the ecclesia called out and gathered by Him, but they are also means whereby the true Church may be distinguished from the false. They are distinguishing marks of the true Church… Fact is that the church in the world is in a constant process of deformation. The reason for this is evident. The church in the world is not perfect. Always there is the carnal element, the chaff among the wheat, the tares in the field. This carnal element is represented not only by the carnal children and hypocrites, that always come up out of the bosom of the Church in the world, or add themselves to it for various fleshly reasons, but also by the old nature in the believers themselves. And the constant tendency of this carnal element is to corrupt the Church, to lead her astray from the truth as it is in Christ, and from the way of sanctification into the corruption of the world. The result of this constant process of deformation is that there are all sorts of gatherings lithe world that assume the name of Church, but with different gradations of purity, until at last the Church reveals itself as utterly false. Always, therefore, there is a movement away from the true Church in the direction of the wholly false, and on the line of this movement there are several churches that are more or less relatively true and false. And by the marks of the true Church in the world are meant these distinguishing characteristics of the Church: institute by which the true church may be recognized in the midst of and in distinction from all aberrations and deformations.
Now, in answer to the question: which are these distinguishing marks by which the true Church in the world may be known? the Church usually replied that there are three such marks: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of Christian discipline, or application of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Let us look at each one of these a little more closely, see what they have in common, and try to answer the question why these three serve as distinguishing marks whereby the true Church in the world may be recognized.
First of all, there is the preaching of the Word. What is it? We may reply that the preaching of the Word is that proclamation of the gospel of God that is authorized by Christ, is according to the Scriptures, and is performed by a preacher, that is, by one that is called and sent to preach, and that stands in the service of the living and powerful Word of God. It is not necessary for our purpose to elaborate upon all the different elements of this definition of true preaching. There is, however, one element that must have all the emphasis here, and that is, that true preaching of the Word is wholly dependent on, and must be strictly subservient to the Word which Christ Himself speaks as the chief Prophet of the Church. Unless He speaks, powerfully, efficaciously, through His Spirit, and unless it pleases Him to make the preaching by man subservient to His mighty Word, there is no preaching.
Preaching is powerful. It is a power of God unto salvation or unto damnation. It is not mere human persuasion. But it is powerful and efficacious, not because man speaks, not even because he takes the contents of his speech from the Scriptures, but because it is God through Christ that speaks through the preaching. From this it follows that not everyone that takes a fancy to proclaim the gospel is a preacher. A preacher must be sent. He must be called. Hence, we insist that the only one that can preach, i.e. that is authorized to preach and whose word Christ will use as a medium to speak His own Word to His people, is the Church. For through the apostles the Lord called His Church in the world, and commissioned her to preach the gospel to all nations. And that Church has the guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading her into all the truth. Hence, the Church alone, and none other, is the preacher. And she fulfills this holy calling through the ministry of the Word, not only in the narrower sense, but also in the wider, including instruction and preservation of the truth, development of doctrine and the establishment of dogma in her confessions. One that is called by the Church, therefore, unto this ministry of the Word, may consider himself a preacher. But from this also follows that the preacher, that is the minister of the Word called by the Church, is strictly bound to the Word of Christ as contained in the Holy Scriptures. Only when, and in as far as, the Church proclaims the gospel of God according to the Scriptures, will Christ use the preaching to bring His own Word to His people, and is there true preaching at all.
The same element may be and should be stressed with regard to the sacraments. Sacraments are holy, visible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace, which the Church is authorized to administer in the name of Christ, and which are subservient to His efficacious Word of grace just as the preaching of the Word. Also in the administration of the sacraments Christ is the chief Subject. The Reformed Church never believed in sacraments that in themselves had the power to convey grace and salvation apart from Christ and His Spirit. If Christ does not say: “I baptize thee,” there is no baptism. If Christ is not present at the Lord’s table, there is no Lord’s Supper. If Christ does not say: “This is my body, this is my blood shed for you, take, eat, and drink,” all our breaking of bread and pouring out of wine, our eating and drinking and speaking, are of no avail whatever. We may say that the sacraments are the wedding ring of Christ, the Bridegroom, to His Church, the Bride, which the Church may wear in His absence, until He come, and which is a sure pledge of His hearty love and faithfulness toward us. But even as a young lady cannot herself go to the jewelry store, buy a ring, and put it on her finger as a pledge of some young man’s love to her so no Church can herself institute sacraments and observe them. Christ must put the wedding ring on the finger of His bride every time the sacraments are celebrated. It follows again, first of all, that only one that is called can administer the sacraments, that is, the Church of Christ in the world; and, in the second place, that these sacraments must be observed by the Church according to the Word and institution of Christ. Only then, and only in as far as the Church is obedient to, the Word of Christ, will Christ speak His own Word through that pledge sign of His love and faithfulness. And unless He does so, no group of people can possibly administer and observe sacraments.
Once more, the same idea appears on the fore in Christian discipline, or the application of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The keys of the kingdom represent the power bestowed upon the Church by Christ to open and shut the kingdom of heaven to believers and unbelievers respectively. You understand, this power is more than the furnishing of mere information as to who are, and who are not in the kingdom of God, or as to whose sins are, and whose sins are not forgiven. Anyone that knows the Bible can do this. But the keys represent actual power over the consciences of men. It is such an opening and shutting of the kingdom of heaven as reaches out into the consciences of men, so that they either rejoice in the assurance of their salvation, or are convinced their being outside of the kingdom and of Christ. But again, you understand that this is possible only when Christ Himself speaks and employs the keys. Ultimately, He alone holds the keys of David, and has power to forgive men’s sins, or to retain them. If He does not open the kingdom to men, all men’s work is utterly vain; if He does not shut the kingdom, no man can possibly expel anyone from it. And again, it follows, first of all, that one that handles the keys of the kingdom of heaven on earth, must be authorized and called to do so. Hence, only the Church can have that power. And, secondly, it follows that only when and in as far as the Church applies those keys of the kingdom according to the Word of Christ in the Scriptures, will Christ Himself work through the action of the Church, and speak His own Word of power. Unless Christ works, there is no key power, no Christian discipline.
In view of all that has been said, it should be evident that these three distinguishing marks of the true Church, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline, all concentrate around the first. The preaching of the Word is not only the chief distinguishing mark of the Church in the world, and the main commission she received from her Lord, it also dominates and controls the other two. All three depend upon and derive their power and efficaciousness from the Word of Christ, which He speaks Himself to His people. Besides, without the preaching of the Word, by which the Church is called out of the world, there would be no Church to celebrate the sacraments, nor would the latter have any meaning. Sacraments are pledges, sign-pledges of the Word of Christ. And as to the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the preaching of the Word is their very essence, not only because the first and the main key is the preaching of the Word, but also because admonition and excommunication must needs be essentially preaching of the Word. Although, therefore, it certainly is true, that all these three are distinguishing marks of the Church, it is safe to say, that where there is pure preaching of the Word, there must also be proper administration of the sacraments, and the right exercise of Christian discipline. In short, it is not too bold to say, that one may sum up these remarks by saying that the pure preaching of the Word is the great and outstanding distinguishing mark of the Church. Where the Word is purely preached, there is the Church!
The reason why these three are marks of the true Church is now also evident. It is not accidental that these same marks, at least two of them admittedly, and the third by implication, are also presented as the means of grace. Means of grace are instituted means whereby Christ through His Spirit bestows His grace and salvation upon the Church. Christ alone gathers and builds His Church. No human power or ingenuity is able to do this for Him, or in His behalf. But it pleases Him to gather and to strengthen His Church through the means of grace, particularly through the preaching of the Word. Now, it has become plain that where Christ Himself does not speak His Word, there is no preaching of the Word; and where the Word is not preached by the Church, and according to the Scriptures, there Christ does not speak His Word. But where Christ does not perform His work of grace, and speak His Word, there the Church is not called out, the Ecclesia is not gathered, and is not built up in the most holy faith. Or, in other words, where the Word is not preached, there Christ is not present, and where Christ is not present there is no Church. It is evident, then, that the preaching of the Word is essential to the very existence of the Church. The two are inseparable. And therefore, the pure preaching of the Word is an infallible distinguishing mark of the true Church. Accordingly, the same is true of the proper administration of the sacraments, and of the faithful application of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Where the Word is not preached at all, there the Church is become utterly false, which is the same as saying that there the Church does not exist. And where the preaching of the Word is corrupted, there the Church is corrupt, and moving in the direction of the false Church.
In view of all this, it ought not be difficult to understand that in 1924, by the adoption of the “Three Points” the Christian Reformed Churches officially took an important step in the direction of the false Church, and became corrupt. In these points the Synod of Kalamazoo attempted to declare itself on the important questions of the grace of God, and of the state of the natural man. Trying to find support for the false position that the grace of God is common and general in the Standards of the Reformed Churches, and being unable to find any evidence of the theory of common grace in those Confessions, the Synod finally committed the fatal error of declaring that the preaching of the Word is a well-meaning offer of grace and salvation on the part of God to all men. By this declaration she not only corrupted the doctrine of sovereign election and efficacious grace, but she also corrupted the very conception of the preaching of the Word itself. For preaching is never an offer to all men, depending on man to bring it, and on relatively good men to accept it, but it is the pure proclamation of the gospel of Christ, in the service of the powerful Word of God Himself. And in that service preaching is not and cannot be grace to all that hear, but is both a savor of life unto life, and a savor of death unto death. The Synod of Kalamazoo declared plainly and deliberately that preaching in and by the Christian Reformed Churches will serve this twofold purpose of the Word of Christ no more, and accordingly the contents of the preaching must be corrupted. Hence, according to the chief criterion or distinguishing mark of the true Church, the Christian Reformed Churches have become corrupt. To have pledged ourselves to silence, and to have acquiesced in the adopted doctrine of 1924 would have been tantamount to a deliberate promise to corrupt the preaching, and to lead the Church in the direction of the false Church. But by the grace of God we refused, and chose rather to suffer injustice and reproach than to corrupt the Word of God. And we are confident that our action was of God. Were we placed before the same choice today as we confronted in 1924, we could but follow the same course. We could do naught else.
And for the same reason, we are also confident that God is with us. As He used us then unto the preservation of the truth and the Church in the world, so He will use us still. We may be small in numbers, but we are strong in the Lord, and in the power of His Word. His strength is made perfect in weakness. And our calling is very clear. It is to preserve and to proclaim, to develop and to teach the pure doctrine of the Word of God, especially as it concerns His sovereign grace, and the truth of His eternal covenant with His people in Christ Jesus, and to instruct the people of God to live and walk in the midst of this world of darkness according to that truth. To do this with all our might, from the pulpit and in the catechism class, through the printed page and over the air, in our homes and in the schools where our children are instructed; to do this faithfully and emphatically, without ever growing weary and with every means at our command, in season and out of season,—that is our specific and very sacred calling! Doing this, but then emphatically only in as far as we are doing this, we shall work in the service of the work of God. “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not vain in the Lord!”