(Note: This is the text of a lecture given by Rev. Flikkema for the Eastern Men’s and Ladies’ League Meeting, on October 5, 1982.)
Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord, as you are all aware, I have been asked to speak to you tonight on the subject, “The Spiritual Strengths and Weaknesses of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and Possible Remedies.” There are a few remarks that I want to make about that by way of introduction.
In the first place I address you on that subject with a certain amount of fear, as well as a feeling of great inadequacy—fear and inadequacy with respect to myself. When I was asked to speak on this subject the thought immediately crossed my mind: why me? Why ask a young, relatively inexperienced minister like me to speak on this subject? Surely, so I thought, it would have been better to ask one of our older ministers, one with more experience in the Word as well as more experience with respect to the spiritual condition of our churches than I. Because, you see, in order to speak on such an important subject such as this one, it takes insight into the Word. One cannot possibly speak about the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of our churches without an understanding of what the Word has to say to the churches. And too, one cannot possibly speak on a subject such as this unless he has experienced firsthand what our churches are like from a spiritual point of view. One who knows nothing about our churches, one who stands outside of the sphere of our churches, cannot and may not dare to speak on this subject. There are those outside of the sphere of our churches who have tried to address themselves to this subject. Really, from the very outset of our history and throughout our history up until today, that had been the case. There have always been those outside of the sphere of our churches who have tried to characterize our churches. And, generally speaking, they have characterized our churches negatively, derisively, with malice and hatred in their hearts. But I emphasize once more, that such cannot and may not be done. If you are going to speak about the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of our churches, you must know our churches firsthand, experientially. I do, of course, but, because I am young, my experience is in the nature of the case limited.
In the second place by way of introduction, and this follows from what I have just said, he who does have experience with respect to our churches, whether, great or small, and therefore does dare to speak on a subject such as this one, must be extremely careful—careful that he gets it straight; careful that he on the basis of Scripture understands what the strengths of the church of Jesus Christ are, and therefore what our strengths as Protestant Reformed Churches are; careful that he does not make a strength what in reality is not a strength; and by the same token careful that he does not make a weakness something that is not a weakness. That cannot be stressed enough. I may have certain preconceived notions, and you may have certain preconceived notions about what the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of our churches are. In fact, I dare say that every one of us here tonight came with certain notions on this subject as to what our strengths and weaknesses are. And that in itself is not so bad. But we must be careful! We must be very careful that our preconceived notions are correct on the basis of the Word of God. If they are not correct, if they do not meet the test of the Word of God, they are wrong, and they do no one, certainly not our churches, any good.
And finally, and this in the third place by way of introduction, none of what I have said thus far about my fear and inadequacy, about the importance of carefulness, may be allowed to detract from the importance of this subject, and above all the importance of addressing ourselves to this subject. This subject is important. In fact it is a subject of vital importance. It strikes at the very heart of our life as churches. If I did not think so, I would not be standing here tonight, and you would not be seated here tonight. If we were not concerned about our strengths as churches, and yes, our weaknesses as churches too, we would be at home. But we are concerned. And therefore it is my prayer that God will use me, fearful and inadequate though I feel, to apply carefully the importance of this subject unto our hearts. With that in mind I call your attention to:
The Spiritual Strengths and Weaknesses of the Protestant Reformed Churches, and Possible Remedies
III. The Certain Remedy
What are our strengths as Protestant Reformed Churches? That is the question that we must face at the outset. As I pondered that question many things came to my mind. Certainly, I thought to myself, one of our strengths as churches is the fact that we are what we are, Protestant Reformed Churches: the fact that we are Protestant; the fact that we are Reformed; the fact that we stand in the line of the Reformation of the 16th century; the fact, therefore, that we are the continuation of the church of Jesus Christ; and that, as we are that, we have a very distinct and beautiful heritage—the heritage of the Reformed Church.
And certainly, too, so I thought, the faith which unites us together as Protestant Reformed Churches is itself one of our strengths: the faith once delivered to the saints, as that faith is written infallibly in the Word of God and set forth and expounded in our creeds (the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt); the faith as that faith consists of sound doctrine. Our emphasis upon sound doctrine is one of our strengths. We insist that the precious truths of God’s Word be defended, maintained, and developed at all cost over-against all heresies, false doctrines repugnant thereto. We teach the doctrine of the glory of the sovereign God: that God is sovereign, all-powerful; that He does whatever He according to His own good pleasure sees fit to do, and with absolute sovereignty; that He is not dependent upon the will of man for anything; that He does all that He sees fit to do for and with a view to His own glory and the praise of His holy name. We teach the doctrine of sovereign particular grace: not common grace, but particular grace only for the elect chosen from before the foundation of the world and saved from the depravity of their sin and misery according to free and sovereign grace through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. We teach the doctrine of the Covenant: the truth that God has established His covenant in the line of our continued generations, believers and their seed; that that covenant as to its content consists in a relationship of friendship and fellowship with God and His people; that that covenant as to its nature is not bilateral and certainly not conditional, but unilateral and unconditional; that that covenant is solely dependent as to its realization upon God, Jehovah, the I Am That I Am, the party of the living God; and that our part in the covenant is one of glad and joyful and antithetical obedience. We teach the doctrine of the antithesis: our spiritual separation from the darkness of the sin and death of this world, living a godly life in conformity with God’s law to the praise of our covenant God, manifesting ourselves to be of the party of the living God. And so we could go on and on. The fact that we in obedience to the Word of God teach such precious truths is one of our strengths.
And then too, so I thought, one of the strengths of our churches is exactly our insistence that those truths be preached! That the truths of a sovereign glorious God, a sovereign free grace, a covenant faithful God Who demands an antithetical life on our part be heard and expounded. Yes, expounded! Not superficially glossed over, and certainly not ignored because they are too deep for God’s people to understand or too outdated for God’s people to bother with them. But expounded! Preached! We insist that we hear the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ. For that is what the preaching is. It is not the voice of man. It is not even the voice of man talking about Christ, or for that matter talking about everything else under the sun but about Christ. But it is exactly the voice of Christ as Christ through the preaching powerfully and efficaciously calls sinners to repentance, hardens the ungodly reprobate, and gathers His people unto Himself.
That preaching God has given to us. He has given to us faithful preachers of God’s Word. Our churches throughout their history have never lacked for sound, biblical, Reformed, lively preaching and preachers of the Word. And they do not now! God has given us as churches a faithful seminary where faithful professors labor day after day and year after year to instruct faithful young men to preach God’s Word. God has given us that. That is altogether a gift of God. There is an expression, and that expression is true: as the seminary goes, so go the churches. If you have no strong seminary, you cannot expect the churches to be strong either. That simply will not happen. That our churches are strong is all due to the fact that God has given us a faithful seminary and faithful preaching. That preaching is one of the strengths of our churches we may know because it is one of the marks of the true church. The marks of the true church are these: the pure preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. And while we are on the subject of the marks of the true church, we must understand that that last mark of Christian discipline is also one of our strengths. Discipline is exercised in our churches. The keys of the kingdom (the preaching of the Word and the exercise of Christian discipline) that Christ has given His church are utilized in our churches. Christ has given to us not only faithful ministers but also faithful elders. He has given us elders who give wholeheartedly of their time and talents; men of prayer who pray all the while as they labor in their office, that God will use weakest means to fulfill His will, mighty enemies to still. Christ has given us elders who are not afraid to stand upon the watchtowers of Mt. Zion to defend us over against the enemies both without and within; elders who call us to battle to fight the good fight of faith, to watch for the return of Christ upon the clouds of glory. He has given us elders who assure us of God’s promise that we are more than conquerors through Christ; elders who set a good example for us to follow by their godly conversation and conduct; elders who are diligent in their calling to go after the wandering sheep and in love endeavor to bring them to repentance, and if they refuse to be brought to repentance to cast them out—out of the kingdom of God, from the church of God, from fellowship with Christ, and from all spiritual blessings and benefits, to use the words of the form for excommunication.
And as a result of all of that, and this too is one of our strengths, God has preserved in our midst faithful covenant homes: husbands and wives, parents and children, godly men and women, sons and daughters who around our tables meet. We have that! We have families who love the truth of God’s Word, and who desire to raise up seed and instruct that seed in the truth of God’s Word in the home as well as in our covenant day schools. Our schools themselves are a testimony of the strength of our churches—schools wherein boards and teachers labor diligently in the nurture and admonition of covenant youth. All of those things are the strengths of our Protestant Reformed Churches. And let me say, too, so they must ever remain! We must ever insist that those strengths ever be the strengths of our churches.
(To be continued)