Beloved Children of the Reformation!
I address you as such because it is exactly my purpose to appeal to you in your capacity as heirs of the glorious heritage of the gospel, the faith once delivered to the saints, as preserved and passed on along the line of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. I do so, too, because by the grace of God I count myself a son of the Reformation, and count the churches who have called this rally as Reformation churches in the full and pure sense of that term. I am Protestant ! And I am Reformed! And therein lies the point of contact between you and me.
We celebrate this year the 448th anniversary of an event that constituted the outburst of the Reformation-flame that set the whole Christian world ablaze. That event was the nailing of the ninety-five theses to the door of the castle-church in Wittenberg by Dr. Martin Luther, who had been roused to righteous indignation at the shameful selling of indulgences for the purpose of raising money for the pope's treasury. That event was but the outburst of the Reformation-flame that had first been kindled in Luther's own heart when he came to know, by way of the Scriptures, the blessedness and the peace of one who is justified by faith only - justified by a wonder of pure, sovereign grace. But that outburst of the Reformation-flame kindled the blaze of faith and fervor, of love and obedience to the Scriptures, of self-denial and cross-bearing, that has warmed one generation after another in many lands down to the present time.
No, we do not believe in hero worship. The world may have its heroes, and worship them. If we would do the same, we would thereby become unfaithful sons and daughters of that very Reformation that marked the end of the church's bondage in the sixteenth century. For neither Luther, nor Zwingli, nor Calvin, nor any of the lesser lights that shone in the firmament of church history at that time, or since that time, were the prime movers of the movement that has meant the church's liberty. On the contrary, we all know that they were merely instruments. They were instruments prepared and called by Jesus Christ, the King of His church, by Him who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks and keeps the seven stars in His right hand.
Hence, we commemorate with thankfulness and with the purpose of renewed dedication the work of God, the God of our salvation, in preserving and enriching and revealing anew the glorious heritage of the faith once delivered to the saints, the faith of the gospel. And therefore I can do no better than to call your attention to:
I. A Precious Heritage
II. Threatening Dangers
III. A Solemn Calling
Let us consider, first of all, wherein that heritage consists. I cannot describe it for you in full in this pamphlet. For it is so rich and so great that one could write a book on that heritage and not be finished. And therefore, for lack of time, I must limit myself and try to describe for you the main aspects of that heritage briefly.
The first and most basic aspect of that heritage is the Bible.
The two great reformers, Luther and Calvin, undoubtedly differed in various respects. But on this most basic aspect of our heritage they were certainly agreed.
They agreed, in the first place, on the absolute authority of Holy Scripture. This is the principle that there is no other authority ultimately for doctrine or for life, for faith or for practice, than Holy Scripture, and that too, because Holy Scripture is the infallibly inspired Word of God. Hence, it is characteristic of children of the Reformation, as one of our creeds has it, to "believe without any doubt all things contained in" the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. In the second place, this implies the truth of the necessity of Holy Scripture, the principle that without Scripture and apart from Scripture the truth concerning the God of our salvation can neither be known nor maintained. And, in the third place, the Reformers were agreed on the truth of the clarity, or perspicuity, of Holy Scripture. This principle implies that the text of the Bible is clearly understandable as far as the truth of God's revelation is concerned, so that any child of God, any believer, can read and understand the Bible in its clear and unequivocal meaning. Moreover, this implies that the text of Holy Scripture has but one meaning fundamentally. Besides, it implies that in the reading and interpretation of Scripture every believer is independent of any institution, that he may even oppose that institute, because all believers have the Spirit of Christ.
On these matters, I say, the Reformers were thoroughly agreed.
And in this sense, therefore, the Reformation restored the Bible to the people of God.
This is basic! For, as is plain from the last part of Ephesians 2, the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. Take that Bible away, therefore, or distort it, or deny its absolute and complete authority or its infallibility, and you attack the very basis, the very foundation, of the church's heritage!
The second and most central aspect of the contents of our Reformed heritage is the truth of sovereign, particular grace.
Again, Luther and Calvin may have differed in various aspects. They may have differed in their approach. They undoubtedly differed in their personal history. But let us clearly understand that Martin Luther with his "by faith only" and John Calvin with his "by grace only" were essentially agreed. That is very plain from Ephesians 2. I refer especially to verses 8 and 9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Sometimes this central aspect of our Reformation heritage is remembered under the figure of a tulip, the TULIP of the Five Points of Calvinism, which I shall call the FLOWER OF THE REFORMATION. Let us look at that flower.
It has five petals, which spell the name T-U-L-I-P. Those petals are:
Such is the beautiful Flower of the Reformation!
Let us take careful note of this beautiful flower, and notice that it is a flower; it is one. If you pluck one petal off, or injure it, you do not only spoil that one petal and destroy its beauty. But by plucking off a petal, that is, by denying one of these truths, or by damaging a petal, that is, by compromising one of these truths, you spoil the entire flower! You spoil its beauty. You leave the flower incomplete. The whole flower will surely wilt and die!
Our Reformed fathers - let me say in parentheses - saw this very clearly, particularly with respect to the petal of Unconditional Election. They expressed this somewhat differently, by saying that election is the heart of the church. They meant by this that in all the life of the church and in all the structure of the faith, of the truth, the pulse of election must beat strong! If it does not, you may be sure that there is heart trouble! And heart trouble is serious: it can be fatal!
But permit me to carry that figure of a flower farther for a moment. For, after all, there is something rather tragic about a mere cut flower. Let us note that the stem on which that flower is borne is the Word of God. And the bulb, or root, which produces that flower is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, the Christ of the Scriptures, in all His fullness. And the ground out of which it is produced is the eternal, sovereign good pleasure of the Triune God.
Finally, let me stretch that figure of a flower one bit farther, in order to picture to you the third aspect of our precious heritage. Out of that flower develops fruit, fruit that redounds to the glory of the God of our salvation.
For the Reformation emphasized anew and further developed the truth that is also taught in Ephesians 2: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." It emphasized anew the calling of God's people unto spiritual separation, the calling to be pilgrims and strangers in the world, the calling to be and to shine as lights in the midst of darkness. It stressed and taught anew the calling of God's people to put on no unequal yoke with unbelievers. It called upon God's people to fulfill their part of the covenant of grace, as being of the party of the living God in the midst of the world. In a word, it stressed the calling of God's people to live and to walk in every sphere of life as those who have all things in common with the wicked, except grace.
And the purpose of this emphasis on the peculiar calling of God's people in the midst of the world is exactly that they might show forth the praises of Him that called them out of darkness into His marvelous light!
Such is our Reformation heritage!
Let me briefly emphasize the preciousness of that heritage.
That heritage is precious because it means, as our Reformed fathers often said, that God is the Beginning, the Middle, and the End of all our salvation. It is precious, too, because for the people of God that pure, unadulterated faith once delivered to the saints means solid, immovable assurance and comfort, comfort that is founded on the Rock of our salvation. That heritage is precious because it is the very essence of that only comfort in life and death of which our famous comfort-book, the Heidelberg Catechism, speaks.
That, then, is our heritage.
It has come down to us in the Scriptures.
It was preserved and emphasized anew in the Reformation.
It was transmitted at the expense of reproach and persecution, loss of goods and of wealth, of name and place and of very life, transmitted in the face of fierce enemies, from the Reformation, along the line of the famous Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619, through the Secession of 1834 in The Netherlands, and again through the separation known as the Doleantie in 1886.
And I tell you that I, that we, of the Protestant Reformed Churches, having and loving that heritage, as a gift of God, in all its purity, without reservation and without adulteration, count it a high privilege and responsible calling of God to remind you, as children of the Reformation, of the preciousness of that Reformation heritage!
Today, when one looks about him on the ecclesiastical scene, he is inclined to lament with the prophet of old, "How is the gold become dim!"
Indeed, dating back to the time of the Reformation there are many, many churches. Historically, there are many would-be sons of the Reformation. But there is very, very little esteem any longer for that precious heritage!
Moreover, it is plain to see that there are grave dangers threatening. No, the cause of God is not threatened! God will certainly maintain His own cause. Whether He maintains His cause through us, or through others, He will surely maintain it. Of that you may be sure. Never fear! But there are dangers threatening us and threatening our generations in the possession of that heritage, dangers against which we, by the grace of God, must fight!
Let me briefly mention some of those dangers which threaten. They are easily recognized, and you will know from their very mention whether or not they are threatening.
There is, in the first place, the danger of ecumenicalism, which has all regard for outward unity, but no regard for the real unity of the church in Christ, namely, unity in the truth and unity in confession.
Secondly, there is the danger of the denial of Scripture. In our pseudo-scientific age this threatening danger becomes manifest, for example, in various attempts to deny or to compromise the Genesis record. Or it becomes manifest in an outright denial of the infallibility of the Scriptures. Another manifestation of this threatening denial of the authority of Scripture is the astounding degree of doctrinal tolerance that is prevalent today - a tolerance that can recognize as "Christian" the most blatant contradictions of the truth as it is revealed in Scripture.
In the third place, there is a very real danger of anti-confessionalism. This danger becomes manifest in the attitude that calls our confessions, the very embodiment of our heritage, archaic documents, good for another age but out-of-date today. It becomes manifest in the attitude that refuses to abide by those confessions, that calls for new formulations, and that sometimes engages in the most open contradiction of those confessions.
There is, in the fourth place, the deadly danger of Arminian free-willism. From this quarter have always come the most consistent and the most dangerous attacks. This has been true everywhere, but especially on the American ecclesiastical scene. Arminianism always aims at the destruction of the truth of sovereign grace and sovereign predestination. It always takes the form of a generalizing of the gospel. It proclaims a grace of God for all men and a Christ for all men. I warn you that it seeks to cut off every one of the petals of the beautiful flower of the Reformation! Our Reformed fathers considered it so dangerous that they composed an entire creed, the Canons of Dordrecht, against this heresy; and they pledged every Reformed minister of the gospel to exert himself to expose these errors of Arminianism and to warn the children of the Reformation against them.
A fifth threatening danger is that of apathy. This apathy among those who are historically the children of the Reformation assumes in our day especially three forms. There is the apathy that arises from and becomes manifest in total ignorance and indifference with respect to the truths of our heritage and the preciousness of that heritage. A second form of ecclesiastical and doctrinal apathy finds expression in the slogan, "My church, right or wrong!" And yet another form of that same apathy finds expression in the motto, "Peace at any price!"
Finally, I would warn against the danger of world-conformity. We live in an age when it seems that Christians are very loathe to be a spiritually separate people and very eager to make common cause with the world, to imitate the world, in almost every sphere and relationship of life. One wonders how it will be with such Christians in the age of the final manifestation of the Antichrist, when men shall not be able to buy or to sell unless they have the mark of the beast in their right hands or in their foreheads. And remember: Scripture tells us that the end of all things is at hand!
With regard to these things, what, we may ask, is our calling?
In general, I would state that calling as follows.
First of all, as far as the churches of the Reformation are concerned, their only salvation ecclesiastically is not to compromise when that heritage is concerned. They must actually be what they are, that is, Reformed!
Secondly, as far as the children of the Reformation are concerned (the members of those churches of the Reformation), their solemn calling in the midst of the world and in the midst of the church - and, if need be, over against the church - is to manifest themselves as faithful sons and daughters of the Reformation. And how shall they so manifest themselves? If they are indeed sons and daughters of the Reformation, they will count their Reformation heritage precious above all else; and as a result they will hold fast to it, hold fast to the faith once delivered to the saints - again, without compromise!
In particular, this implies several elements.
In the first place, it is the sole calling of the church to preach the Word and to expound the Scriptures, and that too, without any human admixture and adulteration, and in full harmony with our Reformation (our Reformed) confessions.
The children of the Reformation, in the second place, have a very personal responsibility and calling in this respect. They are called, for one thing, to know, to be convinced of, and to be thoroughly founded in and to stand in the truth of our heritage. They are called, too, to preserve and to maintain that truth of our heritage, the only truth of the Word of God and of our confessions, over against every attack that is made upon it.
Moreover, as children of the Reformation you are obligated to call the whole church - and particularly your own church, if need be - to repent and to return to the truth. And in this respect the children of the Reformation must be willing to be militant, to fight, and, if need be, to exercise their God-given right of reformation in the church.
I know: such a course is not easy, and it is not pleasant, and it is not popular today. There is far too much of the attitude which would leave these matters to certain "leaders" or to leave differences involving our heritage at the level of mere discussion and propaganda. But the sons and daughters of the Reformation must do more than that. They must let their voices be heard ecclesiastically! They must not fall victim to the pessimism that gives up and that says it is hopeless to maintain and to fight for that heritage. I tell you that if that had been the attitude of Luther or of Calvin or of our Reformed fathers of the past, there would never have been a Reformation! And if that attitude continues to prevail today, and sons and daughters of the Reformation are fearful to speak out ecclesiastically, then that heritage will soon be gone and forgotten. It will be forfeited!
And, finally, it is the calling of the children of the Reformation to seal all this by a spiritually separate walk in the midst of the world. They must be willing to walk as strangers and pilgrims in the earth.
There are three things I wish to mention in conclusion.
In the first place, our Protestant Reformed Churches stand ready to give to any who will stand foursquare on and for the heritage support, counsel, and, if need be, ecclesiastical shelter. We will exercise fellowship with you in the unity of the faith. We have and we love that heritage of the Reformation in all its purity. I say this not in pride, not in boasting. For what we are and what we have as churches is by the grace of God! We have nothing of which to boast, except in the Lord.
In the second place, let me sound a word of caution. Your actions as sons and daughters of the Reformation affect not only yourselves, but they affect your generations. They affect your children and your children's children! And remember, the church in its generations has never yet stood still, either in the line of the truth or in the line of error.
Finally, let me sound a word of encouragement in the struggle, the encouragement of our Lord Himself. That word is this: "In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world!"
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord: forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
May God grant this!