[The substance of an address at the annual meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association]
I do not intend to deliver a sermon tonight, though my remarks will be closely connected with the passage of Scripture which our chairman read, Isaiah 43:1-13, particularly Isaiah 43:8-13: “Bring forth the blind people that have eyes, and the deaf that have ears. Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and shew us former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear, and say, It is truth. Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the Lord; and besides me there is no Saviour. I have declared, and have saved, and I have shewed, when there was no strange god among you: therefore ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God. Yea, before the day was I am he; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand: I will work, and who shall let it?”
Nor do I intend merely to deliver a speech just because it is the custom to have a speech at this annual meeting, nor even generally to try to “inspire” you. But it is my purpose to stir you up, if possible,—to stir you to action. And I am not discouraged in this purpose, but rather strengthened by the very fact that we have tonight, if I am not mistaken, hit a new low in attendance for an annual meeting. And I want to do this on the basis of the emphasis in the passage from Isaiah 43, speaking on the subject, “Ye Are My Witnesses.”
Witnesses of Whom?
The entire significance of our being witnesses, also as a Reformed Free Publishing Association, is wrapped up in this question and its answer.
And the answer is that we are witnesses of God, the Mighty One, Jehovah, the Savior, Who is God absolutely alone. Let me briefly call your attention to each of these aspects.
God is the Mighty One. A God must be strong. A weak God is an absurdity. For He Who is God is the Sovereign, Who rules over all. He must, therefore, be mighty, the Almighty, the Omnipotent One. And in this passage which speaks of our position and calling as witnesses, the emphasis is on this truth, first of all. Our God is the Mighty One. You can trust in Him: for He can surely deliver and save. There is none that can deliver out of His hand; and there is none that can prevent His work. Of this ye are witnesses. Fear not, then!
In the second place, He is Jehovah, the I AM. This is strongly emphasized in the passage: “I, I, am Jehovah.” And the deepest meaning of the name Jehovah is that God is the I AM. He is the God Who alone is. All else exists, becomes, is borne and upheld, is dependent. But God is the I AM, the Self-sufficient One. And as such He is the eternally unchangeable God. All else is changeable and changing. But our God is the changeless and unchangeable One. And therefore, He is the absolutely Faithful One and Dependable One. He is the covenant God, Who keepeth covenant and mercy, the God Who is faithful to Himself, faithful to His own perfections, faithful to His counsel, faithful to His promise, faithful to His Word, faithful to His people! And therefore, once again: you can trust in Him and depend upon Him. No witness who ever does so and who bears witness of Him shall ever have to be ashamed of his witness. Fear not!
In the third place, our God, of Whom we are witnesses, is the Savior. A Savior is one who saves, who delivers. And salvation means that we are rescued out of the greatest evil, the hopeless misery of sin and death, and that we are made partakers of the highest good, eternal life, the bliss of God’s covenant friendship. A Savior is one who accomplishes this. Mind you, a Savior is not only able to do this, or willing to do this. He does it! And this is our God. As such He has revealed Himself to us in the face of Jesus: Jehovah salvation! And this has the strong emphasis in the passage from Isaiah and in its context. He is the God Who will be with His people when they pass through the fire and the water. He is the God Who gave men for them, and peoples for their life. He is the God Who will surely bring them to Jerusalem, to the eternal inheritance, Who will speak to the whole world, to the ends of the earth, “Give up; keep not back; bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth!”
Moreover, He is God absolutely alone! This also is strongly emphasized in the passage from Isaiah. Before Him there was no god formed, neither shall there be after Him; that is, eternally He alone is God. Beside Him there is no Savior: all your salvation is only in and of Him! And this is, of course, in the nature of the case. If God is not God alone, then He is no God. This concerns His very divinity. If there are also other gods—whether they be the idols of ancient times or the idols of the modern day—if there are also other gods, other powers next to Him, those who also possess might and wisdom in themselves, then the whole matter of God’s cause becomes dubious, hazardous, uncertain.
Of Him, therefore, we are witnesses: Him, the Mighty God, the I AM, the Savior, the only Lord God!
“Ye are my witnesses,” saith Jehovah.
The setting is that of a trial, a case at law. It is an on-going trial, a trial whose scene is repeated again and again in history. And in that trial there is a confrontation between two parties, the witnesses of Jehovah and the witnesses of the idols, who are no gods.
The one party is described as “the blind people who have eyes and the deaf who have ears.” These are God’s people, His witnesses. And they are described thus not without great reason. This description is a realistic one, one which accurately pictures God’s people as they have often appeared and do often appear in the course of history, and one which only too often is an accurate picture of us. God’s people have eyes to see and ears to hear, that is, to perceive and to apprehend spiritual things, to perceive and apprehend that He is the Mighty One, Jehovah, the only Savior. But they are often blind and deaf for the testimonies of the greatness of the Lord. Because of the weakness of the flesh, they become dim of sight and hard of hearing. And when they have no eye for the greatness of Jehovah and no ear for His wonderful saving power, then, of course, they also become dumb and they fail to bear testimony of Him and for Him, though they are of God’s party in the midst of the world. And then, of course, they must be called and stirred up and reminded of their calling: “Bring forth the blind people who have eyes, and the deaf who have ears. . .”
The other party is that of the adherents of the idols. They are here described as “all the nations.” that is, the Gentiles at that time in distinction from Israel. They are those who follow one or another of the idols. They are those who deny that God is God alone, who deny that He is the I AM, who deny that He is the Savior.
And the case at issue in this trial is this: it must become plain who is God. Or, better stated: it must become plain that Jehovah is God alone. And God’s people must be made to know this and to acknowledge this and to live in the consciousness of it. Moreover, the decision and outcome of this trial centers on this question: who is able to prophesy, to declare something before it comes to pass, but in such a way that it also indeed comes to pass? In the language of Isaiah 46:10: which God is able to say, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure?” Which God is able to declare the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done? He who is able to do this is God indeed and God alone! This, therefore, is the issue. And this issue is to be determined on the basis of past performance, on the basis of past words and works. The witnesses are called upon to demonstrate from the past that their God has ever declared anything beforehand which has also come to pass. The adherents of the idols must do this; or, if they cannot do this and cannot justify themselves and their gods, they must keep silence; they must hear the witnesses of Jehovah, and say, “It is truth.” And the latter, of course, is the case.
But God’s people testify for Him, testify of His words and works in the past. They are His witnesses that He alone is God. Of this all the history of the old dispensation testifies. God is the God Who has declared and Who has saved. God is the God Who has shewed, when there was no strange god among them. God is the God Who is before the day was. God is the God from Whose hand none can deliver. God is the God Whose work none can prevent. And how much richer and more glorious is this revelation in the new dispensation, now that all the promises of God have been centrally fulfilled in and through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Hence, the outcome of this “trial” and the content of the testimony of God’s witnesses is surely always centrally this: God alone is God! He is the Mighty One! He is the Sovereign! He is the I AM! He is the God Who works irresistibly, the God Whose work stands, so that no power can prevent it or withstand it. He is the Savior of His people! There is none who can save as He!
It is against this background that we must consider for a moment the question: what is a witness?
In the first place, a witness is one who sees and hears and who therefore has personal knowledge of anything,—in this instance, of the truth that God is God.
Such is our highly privileged position. It is ours because, as Isaiah puts it, God has chosen us and called us to be His servants. And He has done this in order that we should know and believe and understand that He is God. In other words, He has revealed Himself to us; He has caused us to know and believe and understand that He is God. This is the work of His grace. The knowledge of God has become for us a personal thing, a matter of the living, spiritual knowledge of experience. We know first-hand, know by seeing and hearing, know by experience, through His mighty work of salvation which He has wrought for us and in us, that He is God, the Mighty One, the I AM, the Savior, and that there is none beside. Him. Such is our position as Reformed, as Protestant Reformed believers. And this is the sole reason why we are believers, that we may be His witnesses, that we may show forth the praise of Him Who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
And that brings us to the second aspect of a witness, namely, that he attests to and, bears testimony of that which he has seen and heard and of which he has personal knowledge. A dumb witness is a contradiction in terms. A witness not only knows, but he testifies, speaks, makes known, establishes that of which he has personal knowledge. Such is also our proper position and calling as witnesses of God. In this on-going trial, in distinction from and over against all who adhere to their idols, it is our high calling to speak out and to bear testimony of that which we have seen and heard, that which we know by personal knowledge: Jehovah, the Mighty God of our salvation, the only Savior, is God alone!
“Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, that I am God!”
You might say that The Standard Bearer is such a witness. This is true from the point of view of the fact that our magazine has always contained that testimony. This has always been its character. The keynote of all the testimony which The Standard Bearer has always borne has, from its very beginning to the present day, been the testimony that God is God alone!
Behind that testimony of The Standard Bearer there are, of course, the writers, the editorial staff. The testimony carried by our magazine has been their testimony, the production of their pens. Behind that staff, in turn, is the Board of the RFPA. They have been responsible for seeing to it that the witness of the editorial staff was published and spread abroad. Without their labors there would be no Standard Bearer. And it is important, too, that they always understand their work as being something much more than the mere hum-drum, mechanical labor of getting a magazine published. That can soon become tiring, become a thankless task,—especially when it is all volunteer work. But the moment they and we see that work in its proper perspective, i.e., as the work of WITNESSES, then it is no more a hum-drum labor and thankless task, but a high calling and a divine privilege!
But behind all of these—the magazine, the staff, the board—is you, the Reformed Free Publishing Association. Ultimately it is this organization who are the witnesses, through the agency of the Board and the Staff, and through the instrument of our magazine. This is obvious from the simple fact that if there were no RFPA, there simply would not be The Standard Bearer.
And thus we have arrived at the point I wish to drive home and apply concretely for a few moments: You, the members of the RFPA, are God’s witnesses, to bear testimony by means of the printed page that Jehovah, the God of our salvation, is God alone. That has always been and still is the sole reason for existence of the RFPA. If that is not your character, then you have no right of existence. If it is, then you have a high calling, and one to which you must, for God’s sake, be obedient.
In this light let us evaluate and examine ourselves and our witness.
Let us ask the question whether we are, and to what extent we are, blind people who have eyes and deaf who have ears, and therefore whether we have allowed, and to what extent we have allowed, our testimony to become silenced. That this happens, you know, is very easily the case, on account of our sinful flesh. We can become accustomed to the most wonderful things. We can begin to take them for granted. And then we become complacent, self-satisfied, unenthusiastic, content to let things be as they are, content just to keep going (which means inevitably to run down!)
And if I may answer this question for you, for a moment, my answer is in the affirmative. This is true of us all in a measure, also as far as the RFPA is concerned. Attendance at these meetings is one sign of this. Even when I allow for the fact that there was a conflict of dates and of other meetings, I must come to this conclusion. And when I scan my audience, I must point to another fact, namely, that there are mostly older men present, and very few younger men. This is not to discredit our older men; on the contrary, it is to their credit. Besides, I love our older men; they are veterans in the cause and in the labor. But it is not a healthy sign that our younger men do not take as active a part as they should! Steps must be taken to get them here and to, get them to add the enthusiasm and vigor of their younger years to this labor.
There is another fact to which I must call your attention. That is the fact that the chief business of the RFPA and its Board has gradually become merely to keep The Standard Bearer in existence, to keep it running, to keep it solvent. My point is not that the latter is not necessary, but that is not enough! And my point is, too, that as this is our chief business and as we concentrate on it more and more, it also becomes more difficult as times goes on. We tend to become negative and pessimistic and struggling in our whole outlook, rather than positive and zealous and vigorous.
A third fact to which I call your attention is the fact that we tend to become introverted, inward-looking. For one thing, we become content merely to direct our witnesses to ourselves in the main. We are satisfied to have our readership and our membership among our own Protestant Reformed people. This is fine! This is necessary! Surely, the witness of our Standard Bearer ought to be in every Protestant Reformed home (and there is something wrong with the home where it is missing. Surely, that witness must be diligently read and studied. This is essential! It is essential especially for up-coming generations. For if they are not solidly instructed and well-founded in the truth, the witness will surely die out! But my point is that this is not sufficient! Nor was only this the purpose of The Standard Bearer from its inception. A witness must speak out! He must speak not only to his fellow witnesses, but also before all those who in any way deny that Jehovah is the only God and the only Savior! And on this score, we fall short! The readership of our magazine includes only a small minority of readers beyond the pale of our churches. This is simply a fact. And I am not referring now to the mere lack of subscribers outside our churches. I am referring to the lack of readers. And I do not lay the lack of readers to those readers, but to our own failure to reach them with our witness, our own failure to speak out, our own very meager attempts to gain readership outside our churches.
A fourth fact, closely connected, is the large measure of inactivity on the part of the RFPA membership. Once per year we pay our membership dues, sometimes we attend the annual meeting. At our annual meetings we listen to and approve the annual reports, vote for three new board members, and listen to a speech. That’s all. In other words, our membership is largely inactive. They are not even so much as called upon to approve a proposed budget, much less given an opportunity to have a part in any other activities of the association.
In parentheses, let me remark that there are many items on the positive side of the ledger which might also be mentioned; and I surely do not wish to leave the impression that there is nothing good about our RFPA. Far be it from me! If that were the case, I would not even see any hope in speaking about these things tonight. But I have purposely laid the stress on the above items in the hope that when we see these indications that all is not as it could be and should be, we will also take steps to do something about it.
And therefore I want to conclude with a few suggestions for improvement.
The principal solution, of course, is a spiritual one. We must open our eyes and our ears, fight against the blindness and the deafness which so easily comes upon us. This is essential. If we become blind and deaf, then our witness is silenced also. And to the extent that we become dull of hearing and dim in vision, to that extent we become silent witnesses. Hence, this is fundamental. And the more that we have a keen spiritual vision and hearing, the more vocal will be our witness. Let us fight, therefore, to maintain a high caliber of sight and hearing. The Lord our God has given us a blessed heritage of the truth, as He has given to no other communion of believers. In the light of that fact, we ought to be the most zealous and the most vocal witnesses on the face of the earth! Let us never forget it!
Given the above principal solution, I propose the following practical measures.
In the first place, steps must be taken to rejuvenate this organization. I have in mind, first of all, that we must do this as far as size is concerned. All of our men in this area should have a part in this work. They should all be members, active members. And this annual meeting should be a high-keyed, exciting, enthusiastic gathering. To my mind, this involves, secondly, that we take action to get the membership involved both in the spirit and in the activities of the association. From a certain point of view, I can understand that our membership can become so inactive that they do not even attend the meetings. They never hear much about the RFPA or have anything to do with it except when they are notified of this annual meeting, a meeting at which they have very little to do. It is almost axiomatic that if you want an active organization and enthusiastic participation, you must give the membership something to do! This ought to be done, and our Board must give attention to this.
In the second place, we must take systematic and well-planned action to get our witness out,—I mean beyond the reaches of our own churches and people. This is of the utmost importance today because of the critical situation in the churches today, and because our Standard Bearer is about the only clear and unequivocal witness on the scene. Think about that latter fact! What a privilege! What a calling!
I do not mean by this chiefly that we must get more subscribers. That would be fine. But I think that will take care of itself, once we take steps to get our witness spread abroad. My point now, however, is that WE must get our witness out. We are the witnesses, and it is our calling and responsibility to witness, not to sit and wait. And I believe that in recent years we have not paid enough attention to this. I know that various objections have been raised on this score,—objections that it is useless and that it is fruitless, etc., etc. I don’t “buy” those objections, for more than one reason. Objections like that don’t show much faith, for one thing. But neither are they realistic: for there are vast segments even of the Reformed community which we have not even tried to reach with our witness on any consistent or extensive or systematic basis. It is simply a fact that especially in the last couple of decades we have not done a great deal of this kind of work. Let us begin anew! This must be planned. It must be done systematically. Perhaps we can only, because of limited means, begin this on a small scale. But begin we MUST! For example, let us (instead of allowing these copies to gather dust in storage) use the over-run or the mailing margin of each issue for this purpose. Let us mail these out on a systematic basis, accompanied by an appropriate cover-letter. This takes only a little work and a small lay-out of money for postage and envelopes. Who knows what it will accomplish? And if funds permit, let us print more copies and mail them out. But, please, let us begin!
In the third place, we must in this connection take steps to get The Standard Bearer on a better financial footing and a more even keel. Our people have supported the cause royally; and I am confident they will continue to do so, and will do even more if the need is made known.
But the fact remains that we operate at present on a hand-to-mouth basis, just barely remaining solvent, and constantly fighting inflation as far as publishing costs are concerned,—even though, I dare say, our magazine is published more economically (for its size) than most. The fact remains, too, that our subscription-rate of $7.00 meets only half of our expenses, the rest being met by gifts and collections. But the fact is, too, that it takes funds to get our witness out to others. Perhaps gradually there will be an increase of subscribers. This will help. But it would require 2500 to 3000 subscribers to make The Standard Bearer financially self-sustaining. And it is obvious that this is not the first solution. Nevertheless, this is one area which must be emphasized: more subscribers!
Nor do I profess to have all the solutions. Negatively, I do not believe there is a lack of money nowadays—in spite of the inflationary trend. For there is money for many things nowadays. Well, the witness of the RFPA needs it too, needs it more than many other things. Positively, I would suggest that a step in the right direction would be to have a proposed budget as well as a financial report. And in that proposed budget there should be an item devoted to the spreading abroad of our witness. And the RFPA should pledge itself to meet that proposed budget.
I am proposing that steps in the direction of financial stability be taken, not, mind you, because we aim to be a profit-making organization. But, for one thing, our Board must not always be preoccupied with financial matters and struggling to “make ends meet.” They must have the funds and the time and the energy to devote to spreading abroad, as far and wide as possible, our Reformed testimony.
In all these things our Board must furnish leadership. I hope that our Board will devote much time and effort during the coming year to these matters. I hope they will come to the society with some forward-looking, positive proposals. They need not even wait until the next annual meeting. Let them call a special mass meeting of our men; yes, and of our women too! In all these matters our membership must also become involved. And in all these matters the staff must lend real support, and in the meantime do their utmost to make and to keep our Standard Bearer a faithful witness.
All this must be done not out any carnal motivation, but only out of the motivation of the knowledge and confidence that we are His witnesses.
“Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah.”