* Address given at the annual meeting of the RFPA, published by request.
Mr. Chairman, Beloved brethren of the Reformed Free Publishing Association:
I am very happy for the opportunity to be here and to speak to you tonight in behalf of the RFPA and The Standard Bearer. I count this a privilege. The RFPA is undoubtedly the oldest organization in our churches, and has played a very important part in the history of our churches from the very beginning. And our Standard Bearer has borne witness to the truth for many years already. I am glad to speak, therefore, in its behalf at this annual meeting. For I love our churches, and I love the truth. And for the truth’s sake I love our Standard Bearer and the RFPA which publishes it. I love you, brethren. I want to say that. For I want you to remember that it is from that motive that I speak this evening. And if in the course of my remarks I may seem somewhat sharp and critical, I ask you to keep this in mind. I am not of those who seem to hold that sharpness and criticism are inconsistent with love, and who by such claims play into the very hands of the enemy, and furnish grist for his mill.
My second introductory remark concerns the content and the purpose of my speech this evening. You will hear nothing essentially new tonight: that is not my purpose. My purpose is to bring certain things in remembrance and to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance. I believe we need that. Sometimes we have a tendency to become despondent and gloomy. And frequently with that tendency comes an almost imperceptible tendency to slough off the keen edges of the truth in our testimony, and in our life and in our practice to lag, to get in a rut, and to drift along. We become complacent, self-satisfied. And this is wrong and dangerous.
It is with a view to this that I wish to speak a little while on the subject:
WE PROTESTANT REFORMED!
And I want to ask and answer three questions with you:
I. Who Are We?
II. What Is God’s Purpose For Us?
III. What Is Our Calling?
First of all, then, who are we ? That is an important question, and we should be able to give account of it. What is our identity? I mean by that not merely what is our name: we all know that. But who are we really? What is and what has been our true identity as churches, as a Protestant Reformed people? What is our origin? Why are we here? What do we stand for? We ourselves should know the answers to these questions, and be keenly aware of our identity, in order that we may also know our purpose and our calling.
And I want to answer this question, first of all, from a historical point of view. This is important. It is so, not only because a healthy sense of history and of church history is important generally for the church and is rather sorely lacking today; but it is important specifically for us. We have entered the second and even the third generation of our own history as Protestant Reformed Churches. And we still continue to make history, That second and third generation of our churches does not know the history of our origin and the early history of our churches by experience. Some of you that are present do. I see in the audience tonight those of you who lived through it all and who undoubtedly witnessed and remember rather vividly the significant events surrounding the origin of our churches in 1924. But that first generation is fast disappearing. And many of you in the audience do not know these things first-hand. And there are many in our churches who do not belong to that first generation. And I fear sometimes that there is an appalling ignorance on that score. This should not be. If we ever forget our history and our origin as churches, we are lost. I mean: lost as churches. That will be the end. And it will be the end because as we continue to make history in the present, we will then be unable to judge the present in the light of the past. We will be unable to discern the real trend of church history, the real trend of what has always been the history of the church and what has been the history of our own churches specifically.
Our history is that we were cast out and declared heretical and schismatic by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924. We were cast out primarily for the sake of the truth of God’s sovereign and particular grace and for the denial that God’s grace is in any way common or general. And the Three Points of 1924 still stand! They still stand as witnesses of that fact. And they still stand as sentinels, guarding the way into the Christian Reformed Churches, guarding it against any who deny that God’s grace is common or general. Don’t forget that! The Christian Reformed Church is still closed to any who will insist on the truth of God’s sovereign and particular grace as we insist upon it, and it is still closed to any who, by the same token, deny that God’s grace is common and general. If anyone has any illusions on that score, let me undeceive you. The fact that some ministers and some people from our own number have found their way into the Christian Reformed Church does not mean that the Christian Reformed Church has changed, but that they have.
The secondary reason for our being cast out was the fact that we sought to maintain and to follow the sound principles of church government, especially the principle of what is usually called the autonomy of the local church.
Such was our origin.
And our history has been also that the Lord has privileged us to maintain the truth for which we suffered in 1924, and to maintain it through and in spite of many assaults from within and without, ever since. That is a matter of grace. Let me emphasize that for a moment. Make no mistake! I am boasting tonight! I want to boast. But I want to boast in the Lord! What we are and what we have as a Protestant Reformed people is a matter of pure grace. It is not of us; it is of the Lord. And when we are privileged to maintain the truth and to persevere in the truth, then we have nothing to boast in ourselves, over against those who do not persevere therein; but our boasting is in the Lord alone.
But I want to emphasize too that nevertheless it is a fact that we have maintained and persevered in the truth. And when all the “red herrings” are removed from the picture—and there are a lot of them, thrown in the way by those who defect—then that one fact remains, namely, that we have the truth, that we have continued in the truth. And even the opposition has to admit it.
The conclusion of the matter is this: we as Protestant Reformed Churches represent the historically Reformed line. And as representing the historically Reformed line, we represent the true church, that is: we are the purest manifestation of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ on earth. We stand in the forefront! And the practical application of this is that we ought to be keenly aware of it. We must not be ashamed to say it. We ought to remember that this is the touchstone of our church membership here on earth. We ought to consider it a privilege of God’s grace that we occupy such a position. And therefore we ought to be keenly conscious that ours is a high and a holy calling.
Next, therefore, we must ask this question from another point of view. Who are we confessionally and theologically?
And then I want to emphasize that what I just said in the preceding is true only because of and only as long as we maintain our distinctive Protestant Reformed character as to the well-known three distinguishing marks of the true church, namely, first of all, the preaching of the Word and its purity; secondly, the proper administration of the sacraments; and, thirdly, the proper exercise of Christian discipline. And that last, let me say—the exercise of Christian discipline—is fast becoming a lost and a despised art in Reformed churches generally. Without that last mark, the other marks cannot be maintained. Where there is no Christian discipline, there the pure preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments will not long endure.
And what is our distinctiveness with respect to these three marks?
From a formal point of view, it consists in this, that we cling strictly to the Word of God as interpreted in our Reformed confessions. This is essential. It is the strength of the church. And it has frequently been said that if you want to come into contact with the distinctiveness of the Protestant Reformed Churches, if you want to see and hear what the Protestant Reformed Churches really are, then you must hear the preaching. You must not just read about them. You must not just know their history. You must not merely read some dogmatic or apologetic or polemic dissertation about common grace, but you must hear their preaching. That, of course, is always the first and the best way to discern what a church is. What does it preach? And how does it preach? And it has not infrequently been the reaction of those who came into contact with our churches on the mission field, for example, when they were asked what really attracted them to the Protestant Reformed Churches, that it was the preaching, the beautiful preaching of the Word of God according to the Scriptures, as interpreted in our Forms of Unity, that warmed their hearts.
Materially, that distinctiveness consists in the twin truths of God’s absolutely sovereign predestination and sovereign grace, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, of God’s covenant of friendship with His beloved elect in their generations, as established and realized in Christ Jesus. Or, synthesizing the two, our distinctiveness consists in the fact that we have maintained and proclaimed that God is God, and that He sovereignly establishes and realizes His covenant in Christ Jesus, according to His counsel, throughout the ages, and along the lines of election and reprobation. This is our distinctiveness, positively speaking. This is the tremendous truth that must and does throb and vibrate in all the witness of our Protestant Reformed Churches, and that controls and must control all of our existence as churches. It constitutes the reason of our existence. Because of this, we have a place on the ecclesiastical scene; and without it we have no place.
And I want to emphasize, in the third place, in this connection that this implies the negative, namely: that we clearly and unequivocally reject all errors repugnant thereto, both in doctrine and life. This is often forgotten and ignored, especially in our day. It is considered narrow, separatistic, sectarian. And, by the way, that term sectarian is not new. We have frequently been accused of being sectarian in our history, really ever since the beginning. But I want to emphasize this negative aspect. It is highly important. And it is certainly Reformed to emphasize this negative aspect. In every yes there is a no implied. The truth is antithetical. And the proclamation of the truth of the Word of God implies and demands, as also the oath of the Formula of Subscription requires, that we shall reject clearly, unequivocally, articulately, all errors repugnant to the truth. It means that we shall exert ourselves to oppose those errors in the preaching and in the instruction. Remember this: when a church begins to depart from the truth, the lack of this negative element is usually the very first sign.
This, then, is our identity as Protestant Reformed Churches and as a Protestant Reformed people. This constitutes our distinctiveness.
In this light I want to ask and answer the question: what, then, is God’s purpose with us?
Don’t worry! I am not going to assume presumptuously the position of a prophet and attempt to make predictions concerning the future. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. And I am well aware that I cannot make predictions. What I say in this connection is on the basis of God’s revealed will.
And then I want to answer this question negatively, first of all.
In the first place, it is not God’s purpose that we shall grow and become big and numerous and powerful externally. That never has been His purpose with His church, God’s church in the world has always been small. It has always constituted a minority, a remnant. It is, as our Lord Himself states it, a “little flock.” And history teaches the same concerning us as Protestant Reformed Churches. We were small from the start. We were in the minority. And we have always remained small. And the Lord has even reduced us in numbers. But we must not be dismayed and upset by this. This is nothing strange in the history of the church. Moreover, to become numerous and big and powerful is not our concern at all, even though we frequently want to make it our concern. The size of our churches, the numbers of our membership—these things are not our concern: God will take care of them.
In the second place, it is not God’s purpose with us that we shall be broad and inclusivistic and ecumenistic. I want to emphasize this too, because it is the spirit of the age, also in the Reformed community. But we may never be any more inclusive than the exclusive truth and its rejection of all errors repugnant thereto. You may call this sectarian. That’s a favorite word of reproach today. But it is nevertheless the case. The real unity and the real catholicity of the church consists in its holiness. And the holiness of the church certainly implies that it is consecrated to God in Christ, and, therefore, consecrated to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its purity in doctrine and in life, and therefore consists in this, that the church maintains and proclaims that truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its purity. And it is for that reason that the church may never be any more inclusive than the exclusive truth. And we must beware that we are not caught in the maelstrom of merger and union and ecumenicism.
Positively speaking, God’s purpose for us and with us is that we shall represent His church in the midst of the world in its purest manifestation. And His purpose is that as such we shall be His witnesses that He is God. His witnesses we shall be in the midst of the world. His witnesses we shall be in the religious and ecclesiastical circle at large. But His witnesses we shall be especially in the Reformed community, and most especially His witnesses to those who excelled us in 1924 our mother the Christian Reformed Church. This I say in the light of our distinctive character and in the light of our peculiar history.
In the third place, therefore, I do not hesitate to say that it is God’s purpose to maintain us as His church as long as we faithfully occupy that position of witnesses. If ever the time comes that we are no more faithful, that we lose our distinctive character as Protestant Reformed Churches, or that we lose the will to witness, then the Lord will no more maintain us as churches. Then there is no reason any more for our existence. But at the same time, I do not hesitate to say: no matter what the circumstances may be, and no matter what the future may bring, our God will certainly maintain us as His church as long as we faithfully occupy that position of witnesses to the truth of the gospel, as long, therefore, as we serve His divine purpose. Of that you may be sure. And in that confidence you may labor. What, then, is our calling—this is our third question—in the light of our distinctive character and in the light of God’s purpose with us?
Principally, our calling is, first of all, to maintain our distinctiveness as churches. That can never be emphasized enough. This is our only salvation as churches, our only hope. And we must not grow weary of emphasizing this; and our people must beware lest they grow weary of having it emphasized. Let this be drummed in our ears. Let it be imprinted in our minds. Let it be impressed on our hearts. Our calling is to be distinctive, to be distinctively Reformed. And that means: the truth above all! In the preaching and in the sacraments and in the discipline, in the instruction, in the catechism class, in the societies, in our homes, in our schools, in our life and in our walk, in all our manifestation as churches and as a Protestant Reformed people, we must be distinctive. We must insist, above all, upon the truth, the truth of God!
In the second place, therefore, maintaining that distinctiveness, it is our calling to be a witness. We must witness at every God-given opportunity. We must witness with all the means which God provides us. We must carry “Protestant Reformed” in our heart; and then we must wear it, so to speak, on the lapel of our coat, in order that all may see. And remember: the very possibility of our witness is in our distinctiveness. When we are no more distinctive, then we can no more witness. The possibility of that witness is gone then. For when we are no more distinctive, then we are like all those around us. And then we have nothing whereof to witness, nor anyone to whom we may and can witness.
Moreover, just as the truth is antithetical, just as in every yes there is a no implied, so our witness must also be antithetical. It must be both positive and negative. And negatively, we must be somewhat like a gad-fly. Our calling is tenaciously to exercise critique on the whole Reformed community, to warn against and to point out error, to stir them up, and to call them to the way of the truth. And that is a very important aspect of our calling as churches, one that may not be neglected. Our calling concerns the Reformed community primarily, and our mother, the Christian Reformed Church. I am reminded in this connection of an article by the old Rev. Danhof in one of the earliest issues of our Standard Bearer. Writing in his characteristic style, he made reference to the words of Hosea 2, and called our people to “Plead with your mother, plead.” That is still our calling. And I dare to say that it shall always remain our calling.
In the third place, our calling is to be filled with unbounded zeal. I do not refer in this connection to a mere shallow, emotional enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that has no root, an enthusiasm that can disappear as quickly as it appears when the first contrary wind blows and when the first disappointment comes. But I refer to the steady, deeply rooted, warm, spiritual zeal of God’s house that should veritably consume us. I have said it before—I think, perhaps, at one of our RFPA meetings. But I will say it again: in view of the precious heritage of the truth which God has given us, in view of our distinctive position as Protestant Reformed Churches, we ought to be the most zealous people on the face of the earth. We are not always. I think we shall have to admit that. We are inclined sometimes to drag our feet, to faint, to be weary. But we ought to be the most zealous! We ought incessantly to witness, day in, day out, at every opportunity, with every possible means, on every occasion, with respect to every issue, whether men hear or whether they forbear. We must witness! “Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah? that I am God.”
And now let me narrow down that inquiry to our Reformed Free Publishing Association. What is our particular calling?
It is the peculiar function of our Reformed Free Publishing Association to serve in that calling by means of the printed word. That means, of course, first of all, our Standard Bearer as a regular and periodical witness. But that means other publications too. And, by the way, where are the brochures and books nowadays that the RFPA used to publish? I am sure that if our Protestant Reformed witness is to go out by means of brochures and books, we must not expect others to do it for us, but must take care of it ourselves. And we should not neglect this aspect of our work.
And the witness of our RFPA must be twofold. In the first place, our publications, particularly our Standard Bearer, must serve to instruct our own people. It is essential that our people be thoroughly instructed and well-informed. Otherwise we cannot preserve our distinctiveness. And remember: if that distinctiveness is gone, there will be neither reason nor will to witness any more. And therefore, our Standard Bearer must serve as a means to preserve our distinctiveness primarily. But no less, at the same time our Standard Bearer and all our publications must serve as a witness outside the pale of our churches. This too must not be neglected. We must see to it, to the utmost of our ability, that our witness by means of the printed page reaches far and wide outside the scope of our own churches.
In that connection, of course, it must be emphasized that by all means the pages of our Standard Bearer must speak up for the truth, fearlessly, unequivocally, clearly. Our Standard Bearer must speak out on the issues of the day on issues in our own churches, if such arise, and on issues that are of importance and concern for the Reformed community at large. Our Standard Bearer must never degenerate to the status of “just another religious periodical.” And it is the calling and responsibility of the editorial staff to see to it that our Standard Bearer as to its contents is and remains such a clear witness.
With respect to the members of our RFPA and the subscribers to our Standard Bearer our calling is, first of all, that we must read it. And I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not always as faithfully read and as thoroughly read as it ought to be. The Standard Bearer does no good, of course, if we do not read it. We ought to form good habits in that respect in our homes. Moreover, we ought to teach our children to read that Standard Bearer too, as they grow up. And I have more than a sneaking suspicion that this is not done as it ought to be. I know that from experience. And, furthermore, we must support the RFPA—support it morally, support it with our time and effort and talents, support it with our money and gifts. And, if the need is there, by all means let us sacrifice in this respect, and sacrifice, if need be, until it hurts. We ought to be zealous, far more zealous in a practical way, than we frequently are.
Finally, the Board has a calling in this regard. Our Board must not be satisfied just to let things run along as they are. Our Board must not be satisfied merely to have things run on an even keel and merely to see to it that our Standard Bearer operates in the black financially. But the Board must give sound, enthusiastic, and forward-looking leadership, and must do its utmost in that regard. Also in this respect there is room for progress.
In conclusion, a word of encouragement. When we Protestant Reformed are thus faithful to our calling to be the witnesses of our covenant God, it will cost us. It has always cost the people of God to be faithful. It will cost us in sacrifice. It may cost us in reproach and shame. It may cost us in suffering. But we are expendable. And we may remember, even as our chairman read to us tonight from Isaiah 43, that we witness in the consciousness that even in the fire and the water Jehovah our God is with us!