After Fifty Years

Prof. H. C. Hoeksema

(The text of an address delivered at Calvin Seminary, December 19, 1974 on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformed Churches.)

Members of the Faculty, Students, and Guests:

First of all, I express my sincere thanks for the invitation to lecture to you today. I am thankful, too, for the subject which was suggested to me by Dr. Stob, "After Fifty Years." I believe it represents something of a milestone in itself that a Protestant Reformed minister is afforded an opportunity to speak on this subject at a Christian Reformed Seminary. Needless to say, I am quite willing and happy to speak to you on this subject.

That subject is and will be much in the hearts and minds of us who are Protestant Reformed. In the year 1975 we hope to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of our denomination, which was provisionally organized on March 6, 1925. The reaching of such a milestone for our denomination, for which at one time many predicted an early death, gives reason to pause and to reflect on our origin and our history and to evaluate our present position in the ecclesiastical world at large, and especially in the Reformed community. And I believe that since our denomination had its painful birth from yours, it should also give reason for reflection and evaluation on your part. It is my sincere hope that this lecture will contribute to the achievement of that end.

Although I represent the second generation of the Protestant Reformed Churches and their ministry, I may nevertheless say that I stand before you as a son of the Christian Reformed Church. This is literally true: for I was born and baptized a member of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church one year before the crisis of 1924. I believe, too, that I am a true son of the Christian Reformed Church--not, of course, as the Christian Reformed Church is today. In that regard I am a son of the Protestant Reformed Churches. But I believe that I am a true son of the Christian Reformed Church according to its true genius prior to 1924. This makes the occasion and the material of my lecture all the more momentous to me -- and, I hope, to you.

Finally, by way of introduction, I must point out that my lecture this morning must needs be in the nature of a summary. If I were to review the history in detail, to analyze the doctrinal issues and implications in detail, and to document and prove from Scripture and the Confessions all that I say in summary form this morning, you would have to afford me the opportunity for several lectures of this length. And so I ask you to bear this in mind; and I believe that this was the intention of the invitation that was extended to me. Parenthetically, let me say that if you have questions, I suggest that you write them down. Then, if time does not permit me to answer them here this morning, I offer to answer them in writing in the Standard Bearer, in which a transcript of my lecture will also appear.

As I speak to you on the subject, After Fifty Years," I will arrange my material under the following three questions:

I. What Happened Fifty Years Ago?

II. What Took Place During the Intervening Fifty Years?

III. What Is the Situation Today?

I. What Took Place Fifty Years Ago?

Fifty years ago the Protestant Reformed Churches had their origin in the events connected with the common grace controversy, and specifically in the events connected with the adoption of the Three Points of Common Grace by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church of 1924. At that time three pastors, the Rev. Henry Danhof (of Kalamazoo I), the Rev. George M. Ophoff (of Hope, Riverbend - now Walker, Michigan), and the Rev. Herman Hoeksema (of the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church of Grand Rapids) along with their consistories1 were deposed from office, following the Synod of 1924, by Classis Grand Rapids East and Classis Grand Rapids West of the Christian Reformed Churches. These consistories and their pastors, along with the greater portions of their respective congregations, felt both for reasons of doctrine and reasons of church government and ecclesiastical justice that they might not recognize this deposition, but considered themselves called of God to continue in the duties and functions of their offices, and therefore, were compelled to organize a self-contained church organization. Pending the disposition of their appeal by the synod of 1926, this organization was at first provisional; and they called themselves Protesting Christian Reformed Churches. After the final disposition of the case in 1926, they organized permanently under the name Protestant Reformed Churches in America. I call attention to this for three reasons. In the first place, because it is a matter of fact that the two Classes mentioned proceeded to do what the Synod of 1924 specifically refused to do, namely, to demand subscription to the Three Points and to discipline the ministers involved, and that, too, in the name of the Formula of Subscription. Besides, it must be kept in mind that the synod had declared Revs. Danhof and Hoeksema to be Reformed in the fundamentals. I mention it, in the second place, because it was in 1924 that the Christian Reformed Churches turned to the hierarchical, or collegialistic view of church government, according to which Classis and Synod are higher (rather than broader) assemblies, and according to which they can assume the power to discipline - something which resides only in the local consistory and the local offices. And I mention it, in the third place, because I must point out that it is a matter of fact that we did not secede, did not leave, did not separate. But we were expelled. Our mother church denied us a place, declared officially that there was no room for us in the denomination, and thus made it necessary for the Protestant Reformed Churches to come into existence. Moreover, these actions received the synodical stamp of approval in 1926 at the Synod of Englewood.

It is a matter of historical fact, therefore, that we are the continuation of the churches which we were before 1924. We are not fundamentally something new. We are not a departure. We are a continuation: in the true sense of the word, a continuing church. And we stand in the line of the church historically.

The second, and by far the most important answer to my first question is: the Three Points of Common Grace were adopted by the Synod of 1924. It is this, from a doctrinal point of view, which led to the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches. And let me add that although there are related matters which are important, it is this doctrinal matter which is by far the most important. If you ask what was the origin of the Protestant Reformed Churches as far as principles were concerned, then the negative answer to that question is: the raising to the status of official church doctrine of the Three Points of Common Grace in 1924.

I cannot take the time this morning to enter into the history of the common grace controversy. Suffice it to say that the Three Points did not drop out of the sky in 1924, but that their adoption was the climax - in some respects, the premature climax - of several years of ferment and debate. And if "common grace" had been left a matter of theological opinion and a subject for' free discussion, there would have been no 1924. But that was not to be.

Permit me briefly to summarize the doctrinal issues involved in the Three Points. In this connection, let me emphasize, however, that we do not live as churches by denials. This was and is sometimes alleged. But no church can exist by mere denials. And we certainly do not so exist. Moreover, the very fact that we have been in existence for fifty years should give the lie to that suggestion. And therefore, as I summarize, I will also set forth our positive position.

The First Point speaks of a favorable attitude of God towards all creatures, and not only to the elect. It is the teaching of the First Point that there is in God a gracious attitude toward all men, among whom also the reprobate ungodly are included. Apart from the saving grace of God shown only to the elect, there is also allegedly a non-saving grace of God in which also the reprobate share. This non-saving grace of God is supposedly manifest in the good gifts which God bestows also upon the wicked, such as rain and sunshine, food and gladness, gifts and talents, name and position and might, houses and goods. Over against this idea, we maintain that God's grace is always particular, directed to His elect people alone. Indeed, we do not deny that God bestows good gifts upon men, including the reprobate. But we cannot accept the idea that there is a gracious attitude of God and an operation of grace toward the reprobate wicked. We maintain that the grace of God goes out to the whole creation, the organic whole of His creatures, with His elect in Christ at the center. And we hold that at the same time there is an operation of God's hatred and wrath proceeding toward the reprobate ungodly in and through all things which He bestows on them. "The curse of Jehovah is in the house of the wicked, but he blesseth the habitation of the just" (Prof. 3:33).

But we hold that there is another serious departure from the Reformed truth involved in the First Point. For the preaching was included in this alleged gracious attitude of God and this operation of God's grace toward men in common. The First Point teaches that God is gracious in the preaching of the gospel not only toward the elect, but toward all men, toward all to whom the gospel is proclaimed. This is the error of the general, well-meant offer of grace and salvation to all men - essentially, the error of Arminianism. And that this is, indeed, one of the errors of the First Point is literally plain from a decision of a later Christian Reformed Synod, that of 1926, which spoke of a "goodness or grace of God in causing to go forth a well-meaning offer of salvation to all to whom the preaching of the gospel comes," as well as of a "certain grace or goodness or favorable inclination of God" which 'is revealed toward a group of men broader than the group of the elect, and that is, among other things, also evident from the fact that God well-meaningly calls each one to whom the lovey invitation of the Gospel comes." The Protestant Reformed Churches believe that this presentation of the grace of God and of the preaching of the gospel is contrary to Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. Over against this error of the general, well-meant offer we maintain that the preaching of the gospel is grace only for the elect, and at the same time a savor of death unto death for the reprobate. We maintain, indeed - with our confessions -that the preaching of the gospel is general, or promiscuous, in that it is sent to all, both elect and reprobate, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel. But we believe -again, with our confessions - that the content of the preaching is always particular. In the preaching salvation is promised (not offered) only to those who believe and repent, that is, to the elect. It can never be said that the preaching of the gospel is an evidence of grace to all who hear it, including the reprobate. Principally, the position of the well-meant offer of salvation is Arminian. And only too many Reformed churches and church members have, as a result of this view of the preaching been victimized by outright Arminianism and have become enthusiastic supporters of many a wild, God-dishonoring evangelistic movement. We consider it our calling to warn unequivocally against the rampant Arminianism of the day, and to call God's people back to the Reformed truth of the gospel of Christ crucified, Who is "to them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Cor. 1:24).

The Second Point of Common Grace teaches a restraint of sin. It speaks of a general operation of the Holy Spirit - not saving, and therefore apart from regeneration - whereby sin is restrained in the individual man and in the community. It implies that there is a spiritual, ethical operation of the Holy Spirit upon the natural man which, without renewing his heart, is for his good, with the result that he is not as sinful and corrupt in his actual life as he would be without this working of the Spirit. By this general operation of grace the natural man is improved, except for his heart; his mind and will and all his inclinations can be changed or inclined for good. Now we understand full well and believe, along with our Confession of Faith in Article 13, that God "so restrains the devil and all our enemies that without His will and permission they cannot hurt us." Actually the Confession here speaks of God's "bridling" of the devil and wicked men; that is, God controls and governs them. And He certainly does so unto the realization of His own counsel and the salvation of His own people in Christ. But we deny that there is any operation of grace toward the reprobate ungodly taught here or anywhere in our confessions. And we deny that there is an operation of grace by the Spirit, outside of regeneration, whereby the natural man is improved to any degree whatsoever.

We have many objections against this view. But our chief objection is that it constitutes a denial of the Reformed truth of the total depravity of man. It is Reformed according to our confessions to say that man is by nature so corrupt that he is incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil. But in the light of the second point, this totally depraved man is a mere abstraction due to common grace, there is nowhere in this world a man who actually is totally depraved. As the natural man appears, he is not wholly corrupt, but greatly improved and capable of good. However, Scripture and our Confessions teach the very opposite. Scripture teaches us (Rom. 1:18ff.) that there is an operation of God's wrath revealed from heaven, whereby He so operates upon the wicked who forsakes His way that he is given over more and more to his own sinful lusts and desires, to do things that are unseemly, so that he proceeds from sin to more sin, goes from bad to worse. Hence, while we readily admit that the sinner is restrained and controlled by the all-controlling providence of God and according to His all-wise counsel, we maintain that the process of sin is bound to the development of the human race, so that every man does not commit every possible sin, but each man, according to his own place and time, character and talents, gifts and means, develops the one root-sin of Adam until the completed fruit of sin is wholly revealed and the sinfulness of sin is exposed to the full. This, and not the idea of any improvement of the natural man, is also a realistic view of natural man and of the world in the midst of which we, as the people of God, live today.

The Third Point of Common Grace teaches that the natural man, by virtue of the influences of common grace, although incapable of performing any saving good, can perform what is called civil good. By this is meant the doing of good in civil life. In the sphere of the first table of the Law, man is unable to do any good. This, after all, is "spiritual" good. But in the sphere of the second table of the Law, the natural man can perform good. He is able to live a relatively good life in this world. We may point out in this connection that proof from the Confessions was sought for the Third Point in Canons III, IV, Art. 4, where we read: "There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment." This, however, is only the first part of Article 4. And if we read the rest of this article, we learn that our Canons here maintain the Reformed doctrine of man's total depravity: "But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God, and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God." This quotation very succinctly expresses our Protestant Reformed position. In all his nature, the natural man is totally depraved; and in all his existence he always sins, and does so in every area of his life. Good works, according to our confessions, are those works which are in harmony with the Law of God, are performed to the glory of God, and proceed from a true faith. Good works, therefore, are performed only by the Christian. And the natural man, the man outside of Christ, being by nature totally depraved, always sins.

It will be readily seen, whether you agree with our Protestant Reformed position or not, that the matters touched on in the preceding go to the very heart of the Reformed position. They are not insignificant, but crucial. They are vital. And the differences of position which we have set forth above are fundamental. And let me add: they are issues which must needs affect not only the doctrinal stance of a church, but the very heartbeat of the church's life - the preaching - as well as the actual walk of God's people in the midst of the world. And I believe that fifty years of history will bear this out.

There are two more items which I deem important to mention in this connection.

The first goes back more than fifty years, namely, the so-called Janssen Case. I mention this because that case, which concerned, if you will, what is today referred to as the nature and extent of the authority of Scripture, was connected with 1924. Not only was there a historical relationship, but there was an intrinsic relationship. I believe that Dr. Janssen's erroneous position with respect to Scripture was rooted in the principle of common grace. And I believe that in the light of recent developments in your denomination as well as in The Netherlands, the importance of that intrinsic relationship between common grace and the errors of Dr. Janssen looms ever larger, even as the importance of the relation between a correct view of Scripture and the maintenance of sovereign, particular grace looms ever larger.

The second item which I must mention is that of the doctrine of the covenant. In a way, that also goes back more than fifty years. For the view which was for many years taught and maintained in your denomination with respect to the covenant of grace was that of Prof. W. Heyns. Without going into detail, let me point out that his view was principally that of a general, conditional promise and common covenantal grace to all the children of believers head for head. Principally, that is the First Point of 1924 applied to the doctrine of the covenant. I mention this, because it was that view which became the occasion for the development of our position with respect to the covenant of grace. And I mention this because I believe that here is an area of rich positive development in our Protestant Reformed theology, preaching, and world and life view. Again, I cannot go into detail. But let me briefly characterize that view as the organic conception of God's covenant, understood as the relation of friendship between God and His elect people in Christ, which is realized organically with believers and their seed, in the line of generations, and which embraces the entire cosmos.

That brings us to the second main question.

  1. What Has Taken Place in the Intervening Fifty Years?

Our Protestant Reformed Churches are about to reach a milestone. Fifty years of history have been made by us - full and busy and eventful years. No one, you see, stands still. Individuals and also churches develop. And they develop in the fundamental direction which they have chosen. That is true for us of the Protestant Reformed Churches; it is also true for you of the Christian Reformed Church.

And let me insert one thing right here. We are not perfect, and have not claimed and do not claim perfection as a church. We have been characterized by many weaknesses, faults, sins, shortcomings - as is always the case with the church in the world. But of one fact we are convinced: we began on a fundamentally Reformed basis, and all our history and development has proceeded from that basis in a Reformed direction. We started out Reformed; we very definitely want to be recognizably Reformed; and we are Reformed today. I believe that no one can successfully deny that.

Let me very briefly recount something of our historical and ecclesiastical development.

1. From the outset we engaged in mission activity. That mission activity has been chiefly at home: we considered it our calling specifically to proclaim and to develop the Reformed truth in opposition to the evident departure in the direction of Arminianism and liberalism here in our home land. And we engaged and still engage in that home missions activity always in response to Macedonian calls to "come over and help us." We have also engaged in mission activity beyond our national borders - notably, in Jamaica and in Indonesia.

2. We have a radio broadcast, the Reformed Witness Hour, which is almost as old as your Back To God Hour.

3. From the outset we have maintained our own theological school, something without which no communion of churches can successfully exist. From that school all our ministers have graduated. In our school we have provided training for the ministry in harmony with the stand of our churches. And in that training we use as much as possible our own instructional materials, in the form of textbooks and syllabi.

4. Over the years we have developed a distinct Protestant Reformed literature: our periodicals, our Standard Bearer, our Beacon Lights (for young people), our Sunday School Guide, our catechism books. But also many books of a theological and expository nature have been published and have emanated from the circle of our churches.

5. As a matter of our Reformed principles, we have developed as far as possible, and wherever possible, our own educational system--parental schools in which we strive to apply Reformed principles to education.

6. By 1940 we had also attained a full-orbed ecclesiastical organization, with consistories, two classes, and a synod; an organization under the Church Order of Dordrecht and in which we are averse to every form of ecclesiastical hierarchy.

And so we grew slowly numerically also; we have never enjoyed a rapid growth. This growth continued until at one point about 22 years ago we numbered 24 churches, had 28 active ministers, and numbered about 1,400 families from Ontario, Canada to the West Coast.

And then came a crisis in our denomination, a crisis precipitated in part by our contact with the so-called Liberated Churches of The Netherlands and with immigrants in Canada from those churches. I cannot take the time to recount that history this morning. I only want to point out, first of all, that fundamentally the issue was principally the same as in 1924; only this time it involved the matter of the covenant of grace. The issue was whether the promise of the covenant is a general, conditional promise for all who are baptized. In other words, the issue was whether, in the sphere of the covenant, grace is general or particular. The DeWolf group held the former. And that the issue was indeed the same as in 1924 is, I believe, confirmed by history: the DeWolf group could not and did not maintain a separate existence, but readily found their way back into your denomination, without any essential change being made on your part as to the Three Points. That is a fact of record.

The second aspect of that crisis which I would mention is the fact that numerically we were decimated, of course. But the Lord preserved us as a denomination. He also strengthened us through this struggle. And also outwardly we have revived. Today we are 20 congregations, from New Jersey to the West Coast. We number some 800 families. We are active in home missions. We have some 20 active ministers. We have a vibrant theological school. We have a press which receives world-wide attention. Our original leaders, Revs. Hoeksema and Ophoff, have gone to glory. Most of our corps of ministers is of the second and third generation, though there are still among us several of our veterans, active since our early years. And from all our pulpits are sounded the same clear notes of the pure and lively preaching of the Word, Reformed according to the confessions.

But there is another question concerning those fifty years. How have our two denominations stood in relation to one another during that period? Was there any contact? Were there any efforts to heal the breach? In answer to this question, I call your attention to the following facts:

1. Officially, there were two approaches made by our synods to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church. One was by our synod of 1940. The second was by our synods of 1957-1959. Both times we called attention to the wrongs of 1924, and we urged that steps be taken to remove what separated us as churches, and declared ourselves ready for full discussion of our differences. Both times our overtures for reconciliation were rejected.

2. Unofficially, in 1939 there was an abortive conference at the Pantlind Hotel between our ministers and several rninisters of the Christian Reformed Church, Dr. K Schilder of The Netherlands being present. Conspicuous by the absence were the Christian Reformed leaders who had played a leading part in 1924. The Rev. Herman Hoeksema came prepared with a position paper at that conference. Thereafter, however, there was no progress because of a refusal on the part of the Christian Reformed participants to engage in discussion. Nothing further developed.

3. At various times throughout these years our Standard Bearer has called for steps to be taken to remove whatever obstacles exist by way of thorough and open discussion. None of these calls has ever been heeded.

That brings me to my final question, which I must needs answer very briefly.

III. What Is Our Stance Today?

Where do we stand as Protestant Reformed Churches?

In the first place, it should be evident from the preceding that we have not changed fundamentally since 1924. We have developed. Our theology has been refined and enriched. We have matured: But we stand fundamentally where we stood 50 years ago, and our development has been in that line. We stand unabashedly and unequivocally on the basis of the infallible Word of God and our Reformed Confessions.

In the second place, I call your attention to the fact that our denomination is unique in this respect, that we are not internally troubled by any of the numerous heresies and other departures and innovations which are troubling churches throughout the world and throughout the Reformed community today. Why? Not because we live in isolation; that is impossible. Not because we pay no attention to these developments: for we follow them closely, in your denomination and in others, at home and abroad. We are theologically aware. But because the Lord preserves His church in the way of faithfulness, love of, and adherence to the truth of His Word. I say that not in pride, but in utmost humility. As churches we have nothing to boast of in ourselves; what we are, we are by the grace of God only.

But there is a second aspect to this question. That is this: where do we stand as Protestant Reformed Churches with respect to the Christian Reformed Church today?

To answer that question, I must briefly call attention to the fact that the Christian Reformed Church has also passed through fifty years of history since 1924. Fundamentally, you have not changed. Your stance with respect to the crucial issues involved in the Three Points is basically the same. But you have developed. And you have developed, I am convinced, in the fundamental line of 1924.

For the most part, I believe, that development has taken place in the past 20 years, roughly since the time when the generation of 1924 passed from the scene. They did not develop much along the common grace line. Partly, I believe, this was due to the fact that they were too traditionally Reformed to accept all the consequences involved in '24. But as James Daane put it, the winds of change began to blow through your denomination. And although there were other influences at work also, chiefly those winds of change blew from the direction of 1924. In some cases, the changes were directly related to the Three Points; in other instances, the relationship is less direct.

Permit me to mention a few items.

First of all, with respect to world-and-life-view, I mention:

1. Your tolerance of membership in worldly labor unions.

2. Your change of stance with regard to the Film Arts, the decision on which appealed directly to the Second Point of 1924.

3. The increasing marriage of Jerusalem and Athens in the area of education.

Secondly, with respect to doctrine, I mention:

1. The general atonement theory put forth by Prof. Dekker in the 1960s. This was directly related to the First Point of 1924 - so much so, that no one on either side could discuss the matter without reference to 1924 and the well-meant offer.

2. In close connection therewith was also Dr. Stob's claim at that time that God hates no one.

3. There is the open denial of sovereign reprobation, and, in fact, of all "decretal theology" by Dr. James Daane in The Freedom of God.

4. There is the as yet uncondemned universalism put forth by Dr. I. Harold Ellens.

5. There are the various departures in the area of Scripture, including Report 36-44, the increasing incidence of some form of evolutionism, the denial of the literal and historical character of the events recorded in Genesis 1-3, etc. These we see as the ultimate development of 1924 in connection with the views put forth by Dr. Janssen prior to 1922.

There are more items which can be mentioned. I have not mentioned such things as Key '73 and Evangelism Thrust, nor the effort to relax the Formula of Subscription and the admitted signing of that Formula with mental reservations, nor the movement for liturgical revisionism.

Now admittedly you are seeing your denomination through the eyes of another. And I want you to know that I mention these things not with pride and boasting and joy, but with sadness and pain of heart. But I will defend the proposition that your present ills are all related - doctrinally, practically, church politically, and ethically - to 1924. I have stated this publicly many times.

And therefore, in conclusion, my answer to the question concerning our stance in relation to your denomination is: it is basically the same now as in 1924. We call you to return from those errors to the old paths of the Reformed faith and to stand where we stand. Only, today that call is more urgent than ever before. If you look back only about 20 years, you yourselves can observe that you no longer stand where you stood then as a denomination. You are fast losing your Reformed character. Return!

Thank you for your attention.

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