I recently received a letter from a brother concerning one of my “letters to Timothy” which raises important enough issues to be answered in a special column of the Standard Bearer. The questions concern what I wrote in the September 1 issue of the Standard Bearer and which it is probably best to quote here:
But there is another matter which we must consider yet in connection with practical preaching. This has to do with the fact that it is entirely possible for the minister to address himself in his preaching to problems of life and conduct which are not directly connected with his sermon. Let me illustrate once again. In some church circles where there are different views of the covenant held than in our own it is customary for the minister to consider a large portion of his congregation as unconverted. This is not the place to enter into the doctrinal questions involved; but you know that in these circles it is customary for and expected of the minister that he end each sermon which he preaches with some kind of “toe passing” which confronts the unconverted with the need of conversion. Now, apart from the erroneous doctrine which is involved in this matter, you must understand, of course, that God’s people must be constantly called to repentance and conversion. There is no dispute about this. But the fact of the matter is that when this kind of preaching comes from the pulpit, the minister tacks on his little call to the unconverted no matter what text he may be preaching on.
In connection with these remarks, my correspondent asks a number of questions, some of which are of particular interest in this whole matter. The first question has to do with the matter of unconverted in the congregation. The brother writes:
There are two possibilities; a) either the whole congregation is converted or b) nobody is converted. Which of the two, a or b, is Rev. H’s position?
In connection with this, he further writes:
If the unconverted are not to be addressed, how can you preach the holy gospel which is according to question 84, Lord’s Day 31 an opening and closing?
This Lord’s Day is then quoted in part, especially that section which reads: “that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abides on them as long as they are not converted.”
The correspondent also refers to a number of writers who did preach to the unconverted, among whom are listed Brakel, Smytegeld, Comrie, Lodestyn, and others. And the question is asked: Do they all err in the truth?
Finally, the writer asks whether these differences
are of such an extent that they have to be called an “erroneous doctrine” so that according to the Second epistle of John, verse 10, he that brings another doctrine is not to be received “into your house, neither bid him God speed.” Or is it a difference that covers only non-essentials? But why then call it an erroneous doctrine?
In answer to these questions, the following remarks seem to be particularly important.
In the first place, it ought not to escape the readers’ notice that I was writing about misplaced applications of sermons. The example to which the correspondent refers is only one example. In a further paragraph I cited an additional example and pointed out that the error is not only one of inappropriateness but also that one who misapplies a text does not let the Word of God speak. The reader can consult that article if he wishes. I would not want this main point to be obscured.
In the second place, there is no question about it that the preaching of the gospel must certainly include a warning to those who are unconverted that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation. This is what Lord’s Day XXXI asserts as part of the preaching, and this is the way in which the kingdom of heaven is opened and shut by the preaching of the holy gospel. At the same time it is also true that neither of the options which the correspondent leaves for me (either the whole congregation is converted or nobody is converted) is agreeable to me or is the truth of Scripture.
What is the actual situation? In a certain sense of the word it is true that every single person in the congregation is in need of conversion, if by conversion is meant what the Heidelberg Catechism calls conversion in Lord’s Day XXXIII: “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist? Of two parts; of the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.” All God’s people and every member of the congregation are in need of this conversion. And this is not only true once in their lifetime, or even frequently in their lifetime; this is true every single day of our life. We need always to kill the old man of sin and quicken the new man born by the power of regeneration. And the preaching must always see to it that the people of God are brought face to face with this calling. There must always be in our lives a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins; we must always hate and flee from them; we must always with love and delight live according to the will of God in all good works.
But the congregation addressed by the minister on the Lord’s Day is not made up of unconverted people in the sense of “narrow conversion.” It is also possible to speak of conversion in this narrow sense as referring to that first work of God in the heart of the elect sinner whereby he is delivered from his depravity and death and translated into the kingdom of life. In this sense, conversion is identical to regeneration as the first implanting of the life of Jesus Christ.
The congregation is the congregation of God’s people. It is the Church of God. When the apostles addressed their letters to the individual congregations, they did not hesitate to address these congregations as “saints”; “beloved of God”; “‘sanctified in Christ Jesus”; “faithful brethren in Christ”; “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ”; “them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Savior Jesus Christ.” The congregation is composed of elect, called, sanctified, and converted people of God. It must be addressed as such.
Does this mean that all in the congregation head for head are indeed elect? Of course not. Paul himself makes very clear in Romans 9 that not all those who are of Israel are really Israel. This was true not only in the Old Dispensation; it is true throughout the history of the Church of Christ. But here we have an important point, a point which is, in my opinion, so important that without understanding it one does not really understand the truth of Scripture in this respect. Scripture looks at the Church as an organic whole. And it looks at every congregation from the organic viewpoint. And every minister must do the same. The example has often been used, and I can think of no better, of a wheat field. That wheat field is indeed a wheat field. It is called by that name. It is worked by the farmer with that in mind. It is tended and cared for, watched and examined as a wheat field. It is harvested finally as a wheat field. Does this mean that every single plant in that field is a wheat plant? By no means. Everyone, and especially the farmer who owns the field, knows that there are many weeds in that field. It is even possible that there is a majority of weeds in that field. But that does not alter the fact that that field is a wheat field and not a weedfield. It is precisely this point which Jesus is making in the parable of the tares in the field. They do and must remain there until the harvest. The Church has, in her earthly manifestation, reprobate seed in her midst. It is always that way and cannot be any different. But it is, organically considered, the Church of Christ and must be called by that name, must be treated as such, and must be addressed as such by the minister on the Lord’s Day.
In the third place, this stands closely connected with the doctrine of the covenant. The covenant is also to be considered organically. The very essence of the covenant is that bond of friendship which God establishes with His people through Jesus Christ. That covenant, according to God’s own Word, is established in the line of continued generations. Children as well as adults are comprehended in the covenant of grace. Hence, the Church of Christ is composed of believers and their seed.
Nor does this mean that every child of believing parents is truly incorporated into that covenant. There are always Esaus in the covenant. But I nevertheless, Scripture is clear on the point that the gracious covenant of God includes both believers and their seed. I compared this in one of my articles to a river flowing in a riverbed. There are new generations entering, that “river” constantly; there is a certain amount of water splashed out of that river. But the whole river is God’s covenant in the line of generations.
If the covenant is considered as an agreement between two parties, or if the covenant is divided into an internal and an external covenant in such a way that children born of believers are first of all in the covenant only externally, and are in the covenant internally only at such a time as they accept the provisions of the covenant by faith, then a situation is present in the Church where children of the covenant must be considered as “unconverted” in the absolute sense of the word. They are not yet regenerated; they are not yet converted; they are not yet, in the true sense, members of the covenant. But this is wrong and leads to an Arminian conception of the covenant.
If the writers to whom my correspondent refers held to this view (and some of those with whom I am acquainted did) then they were wrong.
Finally, I do indeed consider this an erroneous doctrine. I do not consider these matters “nonessentials.” But this does not mean that I apply to those who hold to this position the words of II John 1:10. That is a different matter. The apostle is talking in that passage about those who deny the truth that Jesus Christ is come into the flesh (See vs. 7). These people we must not let into our homes nor bid them God speed. For the rest, I would not only welcome those who have a different covenant conception into my home, but I would also find a particular joy in discussing with them these precious truths of the Word of God.