Recently[i] I heard a sermon of the late Prof. B Holwerda on Lord’s Day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism, a sermon about conversion or repentance. True repentance, Holwerda explained, involves daily repentance. It’s not something that happened once and now I can sit back. No, the grace that God gave in my initial conversion is maintained by Him through my perseverance in daily conversion. That’s the faith that produces good fruits. And good fruits, we confess in LD 33, are those done out of true faith, according to God’s law, and to God’s honour. The big problem is, said Holwerda, that self-interest so easily gets in the way of this daily conversion, in the way of persevering in doing good works.
What happens is that instead of defending the truth, instead of defending the authority of Christ, instead of asking what God’s will is in the matter before us, our actions are governed by what the people might think of what we say or do. Take, for example, the power of convention, of feeling prevented from doing the right thing because sensitivities must be respected. People demand that we speak with tact so that we don’t hurt people’s feelings. We are told that it is ‘not civil’ to be frank and blunt. The result, says Holwerda, is that we so often compromise. We are careful not to rock the boat, not to get into an argument; but in the process the authority of God’s law is not upheld. Just think of the problems that have been created in the past by over-stressing local customs, by trying not to step on toes and offend people’s feelings.
But sensitivity and tact at the cost of the truth is not a fruit of true repentance. Says Holwerda:
Repentance is conforming daily to the law of the Lord. That can mean that I come into conflict with tact, or rather with what is seen as tact. But true tact is that I subject my life and that of my neighbour to the law. True civility is not an adherence to etiquette; it’s not about being nice; it could involve a sharp answer to bring out the truth so that the law of God again stands centre-stage.
The prophets and apostles knew this, says Holwerda. “Amos compares the women of his day with the cows of Bashan; Paul calls the Galatians foolish.” Those men of God were not exactly civil in their use of language according to the custom of the day. They were more concerned with subjecting God’s Church to the authority of His law. And those who do that are often not appreciated because people’s old nature is still alive and well in the Church. Consequently, those who speak up for the truth often find themselves rowing against the tide, all on their own, even in the church. They might be labelled ‘quarrelsome people’. But during the process of repentance, of crucifying the old nature, it is inevitable that the boat is rocked from time to time.
Do you know what really brings unrest into the church? Not the clear words of him who fights to uphold the authority of God’s law, says Holwerda; but playing politics, using diplomacy, sparing certain people and being out to please people. That poisons the Church! We ought to be very careful here; in our Church life we have compromised too much already. How many times haven’t honest, objective concerns been rejected in the church simply because of the ‘tone’ in which the objections were brought forward. Yet that is what causes REAL decay in the church!
Repentance begins when God binds our life to His law. That shows that the Lord perseveres with us. He involves us in a daily, continual self-examination, binding us to His law. That, alone, is perseverance of the saints because good works are those which are in accordance with God’s Law.
And this brings us to another point. We all know that our whole life is to be lived to God’s glory. After all, that is the purpose for which God created us. But, as Howerda explains, too often we are not motivated by a desire to do the things we do for God’s glory at all; too often there is a lot of self-interest in the things we do. Or fear for our own well-being might stop us from speaking out because of the consequences. And so we compromise, we choose the better of two evils. And oh, how proficient we can be in defending ourselves in order to keep up appearances.
But to be a Christian demands radical change. It demands the absolute sacrifice. It means that we eliminate our own interests in order to honour God. Therefore, daily repentance means daily conflict; every day brings a renewed fight against ourselves—so that God may receive His glory.
Once converted is not something of the past, but it is to be continually converted, to continually submit all we say and do to the authority of God’s Word, to uphold Christ’s authority in everything. We can do this because God perseveres, and therefore we must persevere. An initial conversion is only maintained through daily repentance. God moved me at one time to believe, and I said, “I believe, Lord help my unbelief.” The Lord perseveres in me. He keeps moving me in the faith by the Word and sacrament.
Hence my will, being moved to faith by Him, must move itself, and after every doubt, every act of unbelief, I ought to return to Him in faith. The Lord converted me once and He bound me to His law. Then I said, “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man.” But He continues to bind me to that law. Daily repentance is to say, “O how do I love Your law, it is my meditation all the day.”
The Lord converted me once. He called me and drew me to glory in Him. And my response is: “You are my God, and I will praise You.” But God perseveres; He keeps on drawing and calling me. Therefore I must say, “Yours is the glory and the power, for ever.”
That is the perseverance of the saints as God’s gift of grace, says Holwerda. This brings tension in my life; perseverance is now my calling. O God, You converted me once; You convert me even today. Therefore I repented, and I will continue to repent, to believe, to keep Your law, to glorify You every day. Yes, You will perfect the works of Your hands. In the beginning You have taken my hand, and hence my hand began to serve You. And You are still holding both my hands. Therefore I will not forsake what my hand began. “Your mercy O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the works of Your hands.”
[i] 31st July 2016 in the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura. The (translated) sermon was published in Dutch in De dingen die ons van God geschonken zijn, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, the Netherlands, 1955.