...

Next June, God willing, the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) will celebrate the 75th anniversary of their existence as a denomination of Reformed churches. This celebration ought to be the occasion for remembering our history. In the coming months, the churches might well give special classes in this history, especially for the young people and for those who have joined the churches from without. There is always the danger that a generation arises that does not know the works that God has done for Israel (Judges 2:10). Besides, knowledge of our history reminds us who we are and what our calling is in time to come.

The Standard Bearer wants to do its part in helping the PRC celebrate.

In this editorial, let us together look back over our history.

A Footnote

In the books of church history, the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) is barely a footnote. Most non-Reformed church histories do not mention it. Reformed church historians may mention it, but as the unfortunate history of the error of “hyper-Calvinism.”

Also as regards history, we live by faith, not by sight.

To faith, what is important for the church, as for the individual, is not that it receives honor from men. But the church seeks “the honor that cometh from God only” (John 5:44).

By faith, we are confident that God regards our history differently. Size, the praise of men, reputation among other churches, impact upon society—none of these things counts with Him. Confession of the truth of the gospel counts with Him. The gospel is the doctrine of inspired Scripture that the salvation of sinners is the work of God alone in Jesus Christ by sovereign grace (Rom. 9:16). And the history of the PRC is the history of churches that proclaim and defend the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. None can deny it.

Cast Out

In the providence of God (which centers on preserving His truth in the world), the PRC began when the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) cast out of its fellowship three of its ministers, their consistories, and their congregations. This happened in the years 1924 and 1925, in Western Michigan.

The PRC did not leave the CRC. They did not want to leave the CRC. The founders pleaded with the CRC, that they be allowed to remain in the CRC, preaching the gospel of sovereign grace and condemning the lie of universal, resistible grace. To no avail!

From the beginning, the PRC have taken the unity of the church with utmost seriousness. In our day, when members are ready to forsake a true church for the slightest personal grievance, whether real or imagined, and groups split off from churches for frivolous reasons, it is beneficial that the members of the PRC recognize in their own history reverence for the oneness of God in the unity of the body of Jesus Christ.

The issue in the formation of the PRC was doctrinal. The doctrinal issue concerned the gospel of salvation by grace alone with its end in a walk of holiness. At its synod in 1924, the CRC adopted a doctrine of “common grace.” The doctrine has three distinct “points.” The first makes the grace of God universal to every human. Its main thrust is to affirm that the good gifts of providence—rain, sunshine, health, riches, and the like—are grace to the reprobate ungodly. But it also teaches that the grace of God in the preaching of the gospel is universal. In the gospel, God is gracious to all, desiring, or willing, the salvation of every sinner who hears the good news.

The second point declares that God’s common grace works within unregenerated and unbelieving people to keep them from becoming totally depraved. By this “restraint of sin” by an operation of the Holy Spirit within them, they are partially good, possessing all kinds of abilities for good.

The third point ascribes good works to the ungodly. Not only does common grace keep them from total depravity, it also operates positively to produce a truly good culture outside of Christ. This work of grace in the world of the ungodly is proposed as the ground for the church’s friendly cooperation with the unbelieving world for the further improvement of culture.

The CRC made this binding dogma in its communion. Those ministers and consistories that could not in good conscience before God subscribe to this doctrine were deposed by CR classes. Their congregations were summarily banished from the CRC. Thus began the PRC as a separate Reformed denomination of churches.

At their origin, the PRC were small and despised. They began with only three churches and ministers. One of the larger churches abandoned them almost at once. In part because of the name and influence of the CRC among Reformed and Presbyterian churches in those days, all Reformed and Presbyterian churches held the PRC in contempt. Sixty years later, older PR ministers would still speak of this as an especially painful and difficult aspect of their ministry. Of the PRC, as of Jerusalem at her birth, it was true: “As for thy nativity … none eye pitied thee, to do any of these unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, to the loathing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born” (Ezek. 16:4, 5).

Adding to the struggle for their very existence was the great depression that followed almost at once in the 1930s.

Nevertheless, the churches organized themselves as a denomination of Reformed churches according to the Church Order of Dordt. They exerted themselves mightily to live a full church life: seminary; missions; witness by magazine, radio, pamphlets, and books; and a young people’s federation.

In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the denomination grew both internally and by the addition of churches throughout the United States.

Through Fire and Water

The early 1950s brought a sharp doctrinal controversy to the PRC, resulting in the leaving of more than half of the people and ministers. A few years later, those who left returned to the CRC. The issue again was the gospel of salvation by sovereign, particular grace. But the reference this time was to the covenant of God with the children of believers as signified and sealed in the baptism of infants. Under the influence of theologians in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (“liberated”), ministers in the PRC introduced the doctrine of a gracious, but conditional, promise of salvation to all the children of believers. God on His part is gracious in Christ to all the infants and desires to save them all. By baptism He graciously promises salvation to all. The promise, however, is conditional for its fulfillment, depending upon the child’s performance of the condition of faith.

The PRC settled the divisive controversy by synodically adopting an important document called “The Declaration of Principles.” This “Declaration” demonstrates that the Reformed confessions teach an unconditional covenant with the elect in Christ, to whom alone is the promise of the covenant. Grace in the covenant is sovereign and particular, just as it is on the mission field. Faith is not a condition upon which salvation depends, but the gift of God to His chosen people (Canons, I, Rejection of Errors/3; III, IV/14).

God preserved the PRC through those troubled times when it seemed that the churches might be destroyed. “For thou, O God, hast proved us: thou hast tried us, as silver is tried…. Thou hast caused men to ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water” (Ps. 66:10-12).

Modern Reformation

This history relates a genuine reformation of Christ’s church. The PRC are not a mere reaction against certain moral evils in the CRC, e.g., unfit officebearers. God’s work in the history of the PRC is the defense and development of the gospel of sovereign grace.

The PRC do represent the true continuation of the pre-1924 CRC. Such an astute observer as the CR philosopher and educator William Harry Jellema, who himself lived through the controversy over common grace as a student at Calvin College, admitted as much. Before a room full of his philosophy students and his wife, Dr. Jellema told me that in 1924 Herman Hoeksema represented the theology of 75% of the CRC, whereas only 25% of the membership of the church was actually in agreement with the theology of the decision on common grace. “Today,” he added (speaking in 1960), “the percentages are reversed.”

Opposition by the founding fathers of the PRC to the doctrine of common grace as adopted by the CRC in 1924 was a defense of creedal Reformed Christianity in the face of radical apostasy. The “Three Points of Common Grace” denied the sovereignty of God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the gospel; gutted the doctrine of total depravity; compromised the spiritual separation between the elect church and the reprobate world (the “antithesis”); blessed the ungodly in time, while cursing the righteous; and subverted the grand purpose of God in history. The common grace decision set the CRC on a new and fatal course. That course led infallibly toward universalism and world-conformity, as the PRC warned from the beginning and as subsequent history proved and is proving.

Lending significance to the struggle, and urgency to the calling of the PRC, is the fact that many, if not most, of “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian churches share the common grace theology of the CRC. In their repudiation of common grace, the PRC stand virtually alone.

We protest!

Their internal struggle in the early 1950s for an unconditional covenant and a particular covenant promise was simply the maintenance by the PRC of the truth of sovereign grace, but now in the sphere of the covenant. On the mission field, God is gracious only to some in the preaching of the gospel. In the sphere of the covenant, God is gracious only to Jacob in the administration of circumcision (baptism). Grace in the gospel and in the sacraments, whether as favorable attitude or as spiritual power, is determined by eternal predestination (Acts 13:48Rom. 9).

Development of Doctrine

As a genuine reformation, the history of the PRC is also development of the truth of sovereign grace. Ecclesiastical reaction merely rejects an error, usually an error of life or practice, while holding on to the old way of life that was threatened. Church reformation, by contrast, occasioned by heresy, contends for the gospel. It purges the false doctrine, root and branch. It certainly confesses the doctrine of grace that had been corrupted. But reformation does more. It confesses that truth more purely, clearly, and sharply than the church had done before. And it develops the truth more fully in connection with the entire system of sovereign grace, indeed, in connection with the whole body of Christian doctrine and life.

The PRC have been concerned with the development of doctrine from the beginning of their history. Explaining the denomination’s name in his The Protestant Reformed Churches in America, Herman Hoeksema wrote in 1936:

By this name the churches meant to express that they stand on the basis of the Reformed Churches of the Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, officially adopt the Reformed Standards as their basis of unity and are devoted to the maintenance and positive development of the Reformed truth as embodied in those Standards (emphasis added).

In the PRC, Dordt’s teaching of particular (and, therefore, sovereign) grace in the preaching, against the Arminian error of common grace, has been sharpened and clarified.

The Reformed faith’s fundamental doctrine of the particularity of grace has been applied to the sphere of the covenant with believers and their children.

In connection with their defense of particular, sovereign grace in the covenant, the PRC have significantly developed the doctrine of the covenant. They have come to see the covenant of grace as God’s vibrant bond of loving friendship with Christ as head of the elect church and in Him with the church as a body and with each member personally. In light of the covenant of grace as fellowship, they see the triune life of God as essentially communion. The life of the Christian, accordingly, is friendship with God. This friendship necessarily requires separation from and hostility toward the ungodly world, enemies of God. Thus, both church and members are guarded against the worldliness now engulfing many churches and professing Christians. There is special—and timely!—practical application of the truth of the covenant to Christian marriage and the Reformed family.

The PRC are bound “to teach and faithfully to defend” the doctrine of sovereign grace by virtue of their commitment to the Reformed creeds. As a truly Reformed denomination, the PRC are confessional. They believe and confess all the doctrines contained in the ecumenical and Reformed creeds. All officebearers swear to this publicly at their ordination and installation. All members are bound to the creeds by baptism. The only way to the Lord’s Supper in the PRC is that of public declaration of adherence to the creeds: “confession of the Reformed religion,” in the words of Article 61 of the Church Order of Dordt.

Numbers

As for numbers, in which everyone has an interest, the PRC have always had a healthy fear of David’s sin of numbering the people. I can hear Herman Hoeksema growl, “You don’t measure the church by the pound.” In the 25th anniversary book of the denomination, he wrote: “We must not expect to become great in number. For therein does not lie our strength. But rather must we insist on the maintenance of the truth which God has entrusted to our care.”

The PRC live in the consciousness of the reality of the “remnant” in both Scripture and church history.

There is truth in the gibe of that enemy of Calvinism, G. K. Chesterton: “… the thought of the Calvinist that the host of God should be thinned rather than thronged; that Gideon must reject soldiers rather than recruit them” (“Shaw, the Philosopher”).

This having been said, we are still interested in numbers.

At their beginning as a union of combined consistories under the temporary name, Protesting Christian Reformed Churches, on March 6, 1925, the PRC consisted of three churches, three ministers, some 675 families, and between 2,000 and 2,500 people. Before the churches could be properly organized, in 1926, one of the ministers had already jumped ship with his church of some 200 families and 1,000 people.

At the brink of the schism of 1953, the PRC had grown to 24 churches, 28 ministers, almost 1,400 families, and slightly more than 6,000 members.

The schism reduced the denomination to 16 churches, 14 ministers, about 560 families, and slightly fewer than 2,400 members.

The 1999 yearbook shows that in the 46 years since the schism the churches have grown to their largest size ever, with 27 congregations, 34 active ministers (including professors in the seminary and missionaries), more than 1,600 families, and more than 6,500 members. May the Lord add to the church such as should be saved!

Looking back over our history, let us celebrate!

To the churches cast out with loathing in the day that they were born, God said, “Live!” (Ezek. 16:6).

Through the fire and the water, God “brought us out into a wealthy place” (Ps. 66:12).

In our history, “the Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad” (Ps. 126:3).

— DJE