Commencement exercises of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary were held on June 19, 2012 at First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapid. The text of Prof. Cammenga’s address on that occasion begins here, to be concluded, D.V., in our August issue.
Members of the Theological School Committee, fathers of synod, esteemed colleagues, honored graduate, and brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ, the passage of Holy Writ that Rev. Koole read, Jeremiah 1, records God’s commission of the prophet Jeremiah. A commission is authority bestowed on someone in order to perform a certain task, authority to carry out an important calling on behalf of the one by whom one is commissioned.
God commissions Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah and God bestows on Jeremiah authority to perform a certain task among the children of Judah, the Old Testament people of God. God commissions Jeremiah to be a prophet. He calls him to speak the word of God to the people of God. In verse 5, God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” In the last part of verse 7, He tells the prophet, “and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.” And in the end of verse 17, He commands Jeremiah, “Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee.”
It is important to understand the circumstances in Judah at the time that God commissioned the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was commissioned by God to the prophetic office at the time of the reign of Josiah. Josiah was a God-fearing king who brought reformation to Judah. But Josiah was the last God-fearing king of Judah, and the reformation that he brought about proved to be only temporary and short-lived. The unbelieving element in Judah, cowed into submission by Josiah during his lifetime, soon gained the ascendency after his death and remained in the ascendency until the carrying away into captivity by Babylon.
It was to that Judah that God sent the prophet Jeremiah. It was to the church that Jeremiah was sent, but to the church that was falling away and that was in the process of falling away still farther from the Lord. It was to an apostatizing church that the prophet was sent by the Lord, a people who had forsaken God’s covenant.
What was true of the church in Jeremiah’s day is true of the church generally in our day, and is true of the Reformed church specifically. Many, very many, of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches of our day have forsaken the gospel of sovereign grace, the gospel of the Reformation. Many, very many, of these churches are on the road of apostasy.
In Jeremiah 1:4-19, the Lord commissions the prophet Jeremiah, as He commissions the prophet/preacher in the church today, and as we have every confidence He will also commission, and is in fact in the process of commissioning, you, brother Ibe. The Lord puts His word in the prophet/preacher’s mouth. He sends the prophet/preacher to speak His word. And He promises the prophet/preacher, and the church that sends the prophet/preacher, that He will use the word of the gospel out of his mouth effectively, both for condemnation and for salvation. In the words of verse 10, He will use the word “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.”
The Prophet/Preacher’s Commission
In the passage, God commissions Jeremiah to be a prophet. He calls him to bring the Word of the Lord to Judah. Jeremiah’s initial response was to decline this commission by God. He was inclined to reject God’s call of him, first of all, because he considered himself unqualified to be a prophet of the Lord. That’s verse 6: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” That he felt himself to be but a child means that he felt himself to be inadequate and too inexperienced to be a prophet of the Lord. On the grounds of his inexperience and youth, he drew back from God’s call.
Every preacher ought to feel the way Jeremiah felt. He ought to have a sense of his own inability. He ought to feel himself altogether unqualified to carry out the work of the office. The office is too great for any man. The prophet/preacher must know who he is before he ever utters one word to God’s people. He must know who he is, first of all, so that he will ascribe everything that he is and everything that he does as a prophet of God to God and to God alone.
He must know who he is, secondly, so that, convicted of his own inability, he will depend not at all upon himself, but on God. And he must know who he is, thirdly, so that when he comes to God’s people, he will not exalt himself, but conduct himself among them in humility, deep humility. Nothing is more destructive to the calling of the prophet/preacher than arrogance and pride. That divides and scatters the sheep of God’s flock. And that attitude God judges.
There is another reason on account of which the prophet’s inclination was to refuse God’s call of him. That reason comes out in what God says in verse 8: “Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah anticipated opposition and rejection. He knew the spiritual condition of Judah: “And I will utter my judgments against them touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands” (v. 16). Judah was guilty of forsaking Jehovah God, guilty of the false and hypocritical worship of God, guilty of bowing down to the idol gods, guilty of immorality and violence, guilty of not living faithfully in their marriages, and guilty of Sabbath desecration ( Jer. 17). Jeremiah knew how they would respond to the faithful, sharp preaching of the word of God. His fears would be realized. The inhabitants of his own village, Anathoth, would plot to kill him. Zedekiah would have him thrown into a dungeon. Because Jeremiah anticipated opposition and rejection, he was not inclined to accept God’s commission of him to be a prophet to Judah.
But no man refuses God’s call! God does not take “No” for an answer. Whom He calls, He calls irresistibly.
The Lord’s response to Jeremiah’s fears is that He will take care of His prophet: “For, behold, I have made thee this day a defensed city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee” (vv. 18, 19).
The Lord’s response to Jeremiah’s objections is also the assurance that as He has called the prophet, so will He also qualify him. This belongs to God’s commission of the prophet/preacher. This is the assurance that He gives to His servant. This is the teaching especially of verse 5: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” There are three parts to verse 5, three phrases that describe three closely related works of God that culminate in God’s commission of the prophet: “I knew thee,” “I sanctified thee,” and “I ordained thee.”
First, “I knew thee.” “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee.” God did not simply know about the prophet, something concerning the prophet, but He knew the prophet: “I knew thee.” This personal knowledge, as so often in the Old Testament, is the knowledge of love, the love according to which God chooses a person unto Himself, chooses him unto sal vation. That knowledge is God’s eternal knowledge: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee.” In time the prophet was formed by God in his mother’s belly. But before God formed him in time, which is to say, from eternity, God knew him. The knowledge of which the passage speaks is the knowledge of which the apostle Paul speaks in Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate.” God knew, that is, foreknew, and predestinated Jeremiah. And so does God know and predestinate the faithful minister of the gospel today.
We are taught here the indispensable qualification of the prophet/preacher. He must be a saved, elect, child of God. Oh, to be sure, God is able to use an unsaved man in the office of prophet/preacher, as He used Balaam in the Old Testament. But the question is, “What is the will of God?” And this is the will of God, that the prophet/preacher be a saved child of God. He must himself know experientially the word that he brings to others. He must be gripped by that word in his own life. He must know by personal experience the grace of God that He proclaims to others.
Secondly, God says, “I sanctified thee.” “And before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee.” “Sanctified” means literally “to set apart.” It refers to that which is set apart by Jehovah God for special service to Himself. That is the case with the prophet/preacher. As an officebearer of God, he has been set apart from the rest of God’s people in order to carry out a special service on behalf of Jehovah God.
And third, “I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” This third expression in verse 5 indicates the specific calling unto which Jeremiah has been set apart. He has been set apart by Jehovah God to be a prophet.
What this comes down to is that Jeremiah has been called by God. Not only is this impressed upon him through God’s direct word to Jeremiah actually commissioning him to be a prophet, but this is also the testimony of the prophet’s own name. His name is “Jeremiah.” “Jeremiah” means “raised up or appointed by Jehovah.” His very name must be a constant reminder to the prophet of the truth that God has commissioned him; God has called him; God has ordained him; God has set him in office.
This truth is of the greatest practical importance. For this reason, the very first question that is asked of men at the time of their ordination is, “I ask thee whether thou feelest in thy heart that thou art lawfully called of God’s church, and therefore of God Himself, to this holy ministry?” The church needs to know this truth, to be sure. The church needs to know this truth so that she has a proper attitude towards the prophet/preacher in her midst, esteeming him very highly for the sake of his office. But this truth is of great practical importance for the minister himself. Of this truth he must remind himself when he begins to doubt his calling or his ability to carry out his calling, when it seems that more is demanded of him than he can possibly carry out. Of this truth the minister must remind himself when he faces, as every minister inevitably does, opposition and rejection. Then he must remind himself: God has commissioned me! God has called me! And God has sent me!
… to be continued.