This article was first published as a meditation in the May 15, 1999 issue of the Standard Bearer (Vol.75, #16) and was penned by then emeritus pastor, Rev. Cornelius Hanko.
Saved by Grace
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. Ephesians 2:8, 9
Scripture is clear. We are saved by grace through faith, all works excluded. Yet throughout the ages the church has always had to contend with those who held to the error of salvation by works.
Already when Cain brought of the fruit of the ground as an offering unto the Lord he was giving God part of the precious crop that he had grown, with which God should be pleased and which He should appreciate.
Carnal Israel boasted of being God's chosen people, as if that alone was sufficient to merit salvation for them. The Pharisees of Jesus' day made law upon law, precept upon precept, as requirements to enter the kingdom.
The Pelagian error of the free will and the Roman Catholic error of salvation by works dominated the church before the Reformation. Works were regarded as essential to our salvation.
Soon after, the Arminian error arose, which was so strongly condemned by the synod of Dordt, 1618-'19. Yet, ever since, this same error has made its appearance in various forms. Today even the "conservative" church-world tenaciously maintains that God loves and earnestly desires the salvation of all men, and freely offers His salvation to everyone. Faith is not regarded as a gift of God, but rather as an act dependent upon man's free choice. One must accept God's proffered salvation to be saved. Without that, no one can be saved.
Even the common conception of God's covenant of grace makes faith a condition unto salvation. The covenant of grace is regarded as a contract between God and man, consisting of a promise and a condition, or grace and works.
The Antinomian objects to good works only because he regards works as that which we must add in order to be saved.
Good works are necessary.
It would be impossible, nor is it necessary, to cite all the passages of Scripture to demonstrate this. A few will suffice.
Psalm 1 strikes the keynote for the entire Book of Psalms. There we are taught: "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law doth he meditate day and night."
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares that: "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law (with its 'Thou shalt' and 'Thou shalt not'), till all be fulfilled." Then He goes into detail to explain the true demand of the law (Matt. 5:18-48).
In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), Jesus speaks of the man who traveled to a far country and entrusted his goods to his servants. To the one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to the third, one, each according to his ability. Upon the master's return, the one who received five talents had gained other five. The one who received two had gained other two. To each of these the master responded: "Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord." But the unprofitable servant, who buried his talent in the earth, is cast into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Thereupon Jesus speaks of the final judgment, in which the King will say to His sheep on His right hand: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Yet, to be saved by works is a human impossibility.
We are an utterly dependent people, dependent upon the providential hand of the Almighty. God gives us our life, our ability to breathe, our very existence. He determines and directs our lives from the moment we are born until the moment we pass on to eternity. We cannot take one step, utter one word, or think a single thought, except by the sustaining hand of the Almighty. All that we are and all that we have we owe to God. If it were possible for us to do all that God requires of us, even at best we would be unprofitable servants, as humiliating as that may seem. That applies also to every spiritual blessing—we have added nothing, we have merited nothing!
Besides that, we are depraved sinners, enemies of God, self-seekers, proud, carnally-minded, dead in trespasses and sins. The carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. There is none that doeth good of any sort, no not one. All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags in the sight of the living God.
The fathers said that if we must add as much as a blade of straw to our salvation we are lost forever.
We are saved by grace only.
In Romans 11 Paul speaks of a remnant that is saved according to the election of grace. To which he adds: "And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom. 11:6).
By God's grace we are saved through faith. Someone will ask: Does not Scripture require, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved"? Surely God does not believe for us. The answer to that is: True, but this does not mean that faith is the part that we add to God's work, nor that faith is the condition or the prerequisite to our salvation. Salvation is God's gift. Faith is also God's gift. It is all through grace, not of works, lest any man should boast. As the fathers of Dordt expressed it: God "produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also" (Canons III/IV, 14).
We are and we remain responsible creatures. God reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ as the God of our salvation. He raises us from our spiritual death and implants in our hearts a new life. He gives us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand. The Spirit of Christ awakens in us an awareness of our sin and guilt before the most high majesty of God. Only the Spirit can create a godly sorrow unto repentance, not to be repented of. It is the voice of Jesus that calls us: "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And we come! All boasting is excluded.
The fact that is most amazing is that we remain accountable creatures. God is so great, beyond all comprehension, that as His creatures we respond to His call—either we embrace it or we reject it. By nature we reject it. It is the wonder of sovereign mercy that the Spirit gives us the ability to believe and to continue to walk in faith. We believe! We believe in God. We experience that God is our heavenly Father, who loves us with an eternal love. We confess Him as our God and Father, calling upon Him with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. We know Christ, God's Son, as our Redeemer and Lord, placing all our trust in Him. We are justified, assured of the forgiveness of our sins and the right to eternal life by faith only. Faith reaches out in hope, expectation, and longing for our perfection in glory.
At times that faith is weak. We pass through fiery trials that sorely try us, so that doubt and fears arise within us. These trials are temptations. And we do falter and fall. But our faith never leaves us completely, for God is faithful. He who has begun a good work will surely finish it in His own time and in His own manner. God is our refuge and our strength, our ever present help in trouble.
Our good works are the fruit of that grace wrought by the Spirit in our hearts.
"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance" (Gal. 5:22, 23).
We are united to Christ as branches of the vine. Jesus says: "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me" (John 15:4).
We are admonished in Philippians 2:12, 13 to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, "for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure."
Paul teaches us that we are God's workmanship. Each of us is, as it were, custom-made in Christ Jesus. He is our Head, we are the members of His body. Even as the branches of the vine draw their life and fruit from the vine, so we draw our life and works of faith from Christ. Each of us is cut out, shaped, and formed, as it were, with his own personality, talents, and gifts for his particular place, task, and purpose in God's church.
From eternity God has planned our lives, our place in our family, our own particular place in the church and in the community. God has also ordained certain duties for us to perform on our pathway through life.
Every day we are carrying out those works which God has determined from all eternity. In spite of all our human weaknesses and sins, yes, even through those weaknesses and sins, God carries out His purpose with each one of us. We do the works which God has before ordained that we should walk in them. That is, God carries out His work of salvation in us and through us. His counsel stands and He does all His good pleasure, realizing His eternal purpose in Christ Jesus to the glory of His great name.
The most amazing wonder of it all is that God rewards us for the good works Christ accomplishes in and through us. He gives us the privilege, the desire, and the ability to carry out His work in this present time. It is none of self, all of Him.
He takes us unto Himself to love and serve Him in all the fullness of His glorious, infinite perfections—His holiness, righteousness, grace, truth, love, and mercy. We shall reflect and show forth His glory to the praise of His matchless name forever, world without end.
This is eternal life, to know God in intimate covenant fellowship and to grow in that knowledge endlessly. Since God is infinite, all eternity will be required to know more fully the riches of His grace and to experience with increasing intimacy the blessedness of His covenant life. The reward is the reward of grace. Amazing! Amazing grace!
Rev. Cornelius Hanko was born to Herman and Jennie (nee Burmania) Hanko on May 19, 1907 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received his heartfelt desire when the Lord in His mercy took him to glory on Monday, March 14, in the year of our Lord 2005.
Rev. Hanko was baptized in the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. During the common grace controversy in the 1920s the Hanko family followed Rev. Herman Hoeksema and the majority of the consistory of Eastern Avenue in their polemic against common grace and their advocacy of one, sovereign grace of God for the elect in Christ Jesus. The Hankos thus became charter members of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the Eastern Avenue Protesting Christian Reformed Church, her pastor and consistory, were cast out of the CRC in 1926. Rev. Hanko, therefore, was the last of the PRC clergy (and perhaps of the entire membership of the PRC) to have had direct, personal contact with the events of 1924–1926 that led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Already in his teenage years Rev. Hanko had his eye on the ministry. His first inclination was to be a missionary. That never happened, because the Lord called him to the pastoral ministry for his entire career. Rev. Hanko began his studies for the ministry under Revs. H. Danhof, H. Hoeksema, and G. M. Ophoff. He graduated from the seminary in 1929 with five other men (four of whom left the PRC in the split of 1953 and one of whom left the PRC in the early 1960s. All five of these eventually became ministers in the CRC).
After graduation from the seminary Rev. Hanko and his bride Jennie (nee Griffioen) made their way to Hull, Iowa PRC, in which church Rev. Hanko was ordained a minister of the Word and Sacraments in the PRC. God blessed Rev. and Mrs. Hanko with four children, all of whom are members of the PRC: Rev. Herman C. (married to Wilma Knoper), Professor Emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary; Fred (married to Ruth Miersma), who gave his working life to the Protestant Reformed Christian Schools (Adams Street in Grand Rapids, where he was my ninth grade teacher, Northwest Iowa in Doon, where he taught with my wife, and Hope, Walker, Michigan); Elaine, widow of Richard Bos; and Alice, who cared for her father in his later years.
In addition to the Hull PRC, Rev. and Mrs. Hanko served in the following Protestant Reformed Churches: Oaklawn, Illinois (1935); Manhattan, Montana (1945); First, Grand Rapids, Michigan (1948); Hope, Redlands, California (1964); and Hudsonville, Michigan (1971). After becoming emeritus in 1977, Rev. Hanko remained active for a number of years, preaching and teaching in the churches and preaching two services per Sunday in Florida during the winter seasons.
His years in First Church were difficult ones for Rev. Hanko because of the controversy that resulted in the split in First and in the denomination in June of 1953. The controversy involved the doctrine of the covenant. The majority of the congregation of First and of the members and clergy of the denomination embraced the covenant view of Dr. Klaas Schilder (conceiving of the essence of the covenant as consisting of a conditional promise made by God to every baptized child). These left our churches. During these years, while never compromising the truth of an unconditional covenant of grace and friendship established unilaterally by God with His elect in Christ Jesus, Rev. Hanko never lost a certain healthy balance in his preaching and teaching in First Church. He simply did his work by the grace of God, preaching, teaching, and caring for the flock of God as best he was able.
During his years in First Church, which numbered more than five hundred families before the split in 1953 and ca. 200 families after the split, Rev. Hanko had my father as one of his co-laborers in the consistory. They became good friends. The Hankos and the Deckers regularly visited together. It was through this contact that I got to know Rev. Hanko on a personal basis. It was during Rev. Hanko’s years as pastor of First that I was a student at Calvin College, then located on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids just a short block away from the parsonage occupied by the Hankos. Not infrequently, I would walk from class at Calvin to the parsonage with my questions. Rev. Hanko patiently answered these questions from Scripture and the confessions and would then offer prayer. Rev. Hanko was used by God, together with my parents to keep me in the PRC as a member and later as one of the churches’ pastors. I also had the blessed privilege after October 1, 1965, the date of my ordination as pastor of the Doon, Iowa congregation, to labor for a few years with Rev. Hanko as a colleague. We younger pastors in Classis West leaned heavily on our older, experienced, and competent colleague, learning much from his godly example.
During his pastorate in Hudsonville, Michigan the Lord delivered his beloved Jennie from her suffering into glory. I remember sitting with Rev. Hanko in the ICU waiting-room at the hospital, when he remarked, “Part of me is dying in there.” Now Rev. Hanko, having died in the Lord, enjoys God’s fellowship in Jesus in glory as well.
We thank God for giving our churches this gifted and faithful servant and for using him for the edification of the churches for the years of his lengthy ministry among our Protestant Reformed Churches. That in the years to come these churches may follow the example of our beloved brother, Cornelius Hanko, and “…earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints…” is our fervent prayer (Jude : 3b).
Soli Deo Gloria! (Written by Rev.Gise Van Baren)