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The two most recent editorials have lamented the schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) and warned of the continued threat to these churches. Hearts are heavy for brothers and sisters we love, who have not only left the fellowship of the PRC but charged her with the most serious evils. For them the PRC have so apostatized that it would be grossest sin not to come out from them and be separate. Their “Act of Separation” declares the PRC to have lost the marks of the true church (see the editorial of March 15). Now, those who wrote the “Act,” those who signed it, and all who join them are engaged in a determined campaign to justify their departure by further blackening the name of PRC churches, consistories, and officebearers; by this, they seek to draw as many out of her as possible. Thus, a serious threat.

For some time now, readers have asked the Standard Bearer to expose the untruths, half-truths, slander, and misrepresentations that they have heard. Their plea is understandable, for some who believe what they read and hear are tempted to join the schism. The PRC must be as bad as they hear. Others, of course, pray that the controversy be ended and that they hear no more about it. Most, however, plead that the magazine ‘set the record straight.’ But it is not the place of this writer to show who has violated the ninth commandment and thus is guilty of slander and schism. Especially in a bond of churches, this is the calling of individuals as they walk the way of Matthew 18, and of consistories as they call public slanderers to repentance. The Standard Bearer urges individuals and consistories to honor Jesus Christ, the Truth, by dealing with sin in the biblical way. In that connection, the next editorial (April 15) will address positively and negatively how troubles in the churches ought to be handled.

The present editorial describes what doctrines have been debated in the past five years, some of which have been addressed in the consistories and the broader assemblies. The editorial will attribute present error to no one. Again, that is the place of a consistory, which will charge an errorist with sin and seek to correct in love. Rather, the purpose is to warn of errors that threaten the churches in order that believers may be kept from them. In the process, the editorial will not develop the doctrines in detail. That has been the place of many articles in these pages by many writers since 2018.1 The purpose of this editorial is to give a perspective on the doctrines for those who ask, “What is the debate all about?”

 

Crucified between two thieves

In connection with errors in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation, which our controversy has been about), church fathers have said, using a well-understood analogy, “Christ is always crucified between two thieves.”2 It is not the point here to decide whether these ‘thieves’ are to be labeled with the names “Legalism” and “Antinomianism” (historically, this was so), the “Two Ditches,” or the “Left” and the “Right.” For labels are often that—merely labels that, too quickly attached to a person or teaching, are then either misunderstood or just as quickly dismissed.

Rather, our purpose is twofold. First, recognizing that in the past five years some members have been concerned about one error while others about another, we ask, are both fears legitimate in our present circumstances? Second, our purpose is to urge all to recognize that there is always more than one threat. The church fathers’ point has been: “Christ is always crucified between these two thieves.”

Thus, to those who fear the thief on the left, a warning is necessary: beware the thief on the right. And to those who sound a warning about the thief on the right, a similar warning: beware the thief on the left. And then we also make a plea: When you hear someone warn about the thief on the left, do not assume that he is in the hands of the thief on the right. And when you hear another warn about the thief on the right, do not assume that he has fallen prey to the thief on the left.

Let us speak truth and judge charitably. And then let each of us ask whether we are inclined to miss the one error because we are so fixated on the other. Often, those who are unwilling to see both errors, or admit any blind spot, are at greatest risk.

 

The thief on the left (taking credit for works)

The thief on the left wants us to take credit for our works. He wants man’s works to be a condition for or the basis of covenant life with God. He teaches that God fellowships with His people, in part, because of their works. He proposes that man’s obedience is the reason for God’s blessings. For him, good works contribute to justification. He trusts in his works for his righteousness. He is the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14).

The Reformed faith, opposing this thief, asserts that the source and fountain of salvation is the sovereign, electing grace and mercy of God in Christ—not foreseen works. It asserts that the basis, foundation, and reason for all of man’s salvation and righteousness is Christ and Christ alone—not works. And the instrument by which man receives this righteousness is faith and faith alone—not works.

In 2018, the PRC Synod identified and condemned the error on the left. Synod exposed teaching that gave man’s works “a place and function that is out of harmony with the Reformed confessions” (PRC Acts, p. 61).

Members of the PRC ought to be thoroughly familiar with the decisions of the 2018 Synod, found in the Acts especially on pages 69-76. The editorial immediately following the 2018 Synod impressed upon the readers the seriousness of the error and the importance of the decisions. It urged readers to sit up and take notice, to study and understand the decisions, and to discuss them. Only in that way would we have a good understanding of Christ’s saving work for us and in us. This editorial once again urges this upon the readers.

The last editorial (March 15, 2021) recognized that it took some time for the churches to identify and correct the error, and that several meetings of Classis East did not identify and correct the error. This painful history might not be worth resurrecting now since the point here is the doctrine and not the history, except that readers must know that Classis East has rejected the errors it earlier failed to condemn. In September 2018, immediately after synod, Classis East sustained multiple protests against its previous decisions. In sustaining the protests, classis declared three times that it had erred in significant points (Minutes, 41/43, 42, and 44, II, A). Significantly, classis grounded its decisions in Synod 2018 itself. By this, Classis East expressed agreement with synod’s decisions. Then in May 2019 classis rejected of the “Doctrinal Statement” that contained errors similar to those that Synod condemned. Thus, synod rejected the “Doctrinal Statement.” And in May 2019 classis affirmed: “Thus Classis East…also rejected the Doctrinal Statement.”

The doctrinal error that was exposed and rejected must not be forgotten, painful as it is to be reminded of it. We must guard against it as we go forward. So it is worth emphasizing what the PRC has always believed, and what she ‘underlined’ in 2018.

The thief on the left appeared in PRC history prior to 1953 when some wanted to make God’s covenant of grace conditional. The thief taught that God established His covenant with every baptized child, but only when the child fulfilled a condition would he enjoy the covenant’s benefits. In 1953 the churches put out the thief. More recently, the PRC saw him in the “Federal Vision” error that contends that both faith and the works of faith are conditions for salvation, and that works are a part of man’s final justification.

In 2018 the PRC identified this thief in the teaching that a believer’s fellowship with God was dependent on his good works, and that more good works brought about better fellowship. The error was also found in the teaching that a believer’s assurance of justification was dependent partly on his good works.

Having put out the error, the churches now must guard tenaciously the truth that our enjoyment of fellowship with God is never because of our obedience, but always and only because of Christ’s. We will defend— because Scripture and the Reformed faith call us to do so—that we never enjoy fellowship with God by means of obedience, but always and only by faith. We will teach and defend that we cannot come to God by our works, but always and only by Christ, who for us fulfilled “all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

And remember that the error on the left is a thief. He robs God of His glory (Rom. 4:2). To say that our works contribute to, form the basis of, or reason for, or in any way earn or merit blessings from God, is to rob Jesus Christ of His worth and to rob God of His glory in His Son (Rom. 11:36). All theological error robs God of His glory, but especially the error that gives man credit for salvation. Taking the glory from Christ, the thief gives it to man. The thief on the left must be kept out. He may not be allowed any entrance into our pulpits or catechism rooms, Bible Studies or singspirations, magazines or radio broadcasts, homes or Christian schools. And if he does appear, he and any who allow him access must be dealt with by discipline, for this thief’s words will “eat like a canker” (that is, ‘spread like gangrene,’ as the Greek has it). They will “overthrow the faith” of our children (II Tim. 2:16, 17). Beware the thief on the left.

 

The thief on the right ( undermining works )

As the PRC battled the thief on the left, there were also some who were cautioning against the one on the right. They recognize that “Christ is always crucified between two thieves” and that we must keep up our defenses against both.

Whereas the thief on the left robs God of His glory by giving credit to man, the thief on the right robs God of His glory in a different way: by denying or minimizing the power of God’s grace in the believer. The thief on the left credits man for doing; the thief on the right denies or minimizes either the Christian’s duty or ability to do. He denies what Christ works in the believer, denies that the believer actually “wills and does” God’s good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). He denies any ‘good’ in the believer’s will or works (Rom. 7:16-18).

Again and again the PRC has joined the older fathers in posting a watch for this other thief. As you focus on one thief, you must not forget the other.

Interestingly, PRC writers have also recognized that the danger of falling prey to the one thief is especially great just when they are doing battle with the other. Fleeing the one, they run pell-mell into the arms of the other. Such are the ‘devices’ of the evil one (II Cor. 2:11).

This thief on the right can be recognized by God’s people as readily as the other. The following identifying markers are what PRC ministers have said in her almost 100-year history. This is what all living PRC members have or could have read in PRC writings in their lifetime.

  • The thief on the right places such an emphasis on justification that sanctification is sold short. He emphasizes the work of Christ for the Christian and minimizes the work of Christ in and through the Christian. He rightly refuses credit to man, but he errs as seriously by detracting from the glory of Christ as a complete Savior. That is, he preaches that Jesus redeems, but ignores that Jesus also renews His people.
  • When the ‘must’ of good works comes up in the Heidelberg Catechism, this thief will not deny that there is a ‘must,’ but claims that it is not a ‘command’ to do good works; it only expresses that all Christians will do them. ‘Commands’ in the preaching must imply the ability to obey them, says this thief on the right, or that conditional theology is hiding somewhere near.
  • At other times, this thief will have preachers deny that Christians even do good works, for the child of God remains spiritually dead. Christians probably cannot even be said to ‘believe.’
  • If a sermon works godly sorrow in someone and he approaches the preacher afterwards to ask, “What shall I do?” the preacher, influenced by the thief on the right, reverts quickly into polemic mode against ‘free will,’ warns that no one can do anything toward his salvation, but never gets around to answering the good question with, “Repent, believe, and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and save yourself from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:37-40).
  • And if a good preacher resists this thief’s influence and finally does call the people of God to repentance and faith, the thief on the right convinces the congregation that the preacher is probably Pelagian or Arminian because he is emphasizing ‘works.’
  • In the end, when this thief has had his way with the preacher, the preacher is convinced he should never tell people what to do. If he does, says this thief, the preacher is preaching ‘conditions.’ There are no ‘demands’ and ‘obligations’ in the covenant.

Perhaps the reader recognizes one of these thieves better than the other. For the well-being of the true church of Christ, we must familiarize ourselves with both. For Christ is always crucified between two thieves. Both thieves rob God of His glory in His work of saving His people. Let all praise and glory be given to God.


1 We will send a list of all these to any reader who asks.

2 The saying is attributed to Augustus Toplady, and later James Henley Thornwell.