Some people say: doctrine divides but service unites, so let’s focus on what unites us, on what we have in common, rather than on what divides. But with such an approach there would never be a reformation. The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and we confess that it “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it (BCF:29). And because our Lord Jesus Christ not only gathers but also defends and preserves His church (LD 21) He has, through the generations, graciously granted reformations so that we may walk in the inexpressively rich doctrine of God’s holy Word. Today, Reformation Day, we’ll sketch some of them.
The Great Reformation
Five centuries ago the Lord opened the eyes of Martin Luther, who had been tormented by the thought of not having done enough to be saved, to the fact that we are justified by faith in Christ alone without us contributing anything to our salvation. Luther sought to direct the church back to the truth in doctrine and life but the powerful Romanist hierarchy tried to destroy Luther and through terrible persecution tried to stamp out the reformation. God, however, used Luther to bring about the great reformation, and to consolidate it, especially through the writings and other actions of John Calvin. The Lord used these men to bring about the great return to the true doctrine of God’s Word, the foundation of the church, as well as to the Scriptural government of the church. Thereby the Lord separated His people from those who wanted to cling to a Romanist man-made doctrine.
It’s only about two centuries ago that Hendrik de Cock, a minister of the Word in the Dutch state church, preached what he’d been taught at university, namely that if you lived virtuously you could be sure of eternal life. But the Lord intervened. He used an old man in de Cock’s congregation, who told de Cock that our sins are so great and many that, even if we did our best, our actions could never secure us a place in heaven. Indeed, said he, “even if I had to add one sigh to my salvation, I’d be lost forever”. The old man’s words bothered Rev de Cock, so he started reading Calvin’s Institutes and other sources. The Lord opened his eyes to see the true doctrine. Needless to say, his sermons changed radically and believers from near and far flocked to hear him. Although the powerful hierarchy in the Dutch state church persecuted de Cock, God used him to bring about another beautiful reformation, what’s known as the Secession of 1834. Again, the Lord brought separation between the faithful and those who wanted to remain in error.
A few decades later something similar occurred in that same state church. Abraham Kuyper, a talented minister, was confronted by a young lady in his congregation who told him plainly that all this business about earning a place in heaven by our good works was unscriptural. Kuyper listened in growing amazement at how this ‘ordinary’ woman demonstrated a greater knowledge of Scripture than he had learned at university. Like Hendrik de Cock, he meditated on what the church member said and, through his further studies, discovered that his earlier views about people’s abilities to lead upright lives by nature was wrong. He learned that by nature we are all dead in sins and he discovered that to teach anything else was contrary to the clear doctrine of God’s Word and undermined the greatness of God’s love in Jesus Christ. God used him to come to another secession, the so-called ‘Doleantie’ of 1886. These two Seceded churches united in 1892.
And then, in 1944, the Lord brought about yet another reformation. During WW2, a synod seized power in the churches and forced office bearers to subscribe to heresy. Despite a flurry of appeals from the churches, synod rammed through its decisions. When faithful lecturers (including Prof. K Schilder), theological students and office bearers refused, they were suspended and later deposed from office (something major assemblies are not authorised to do). Much more could be said about this, but the result was that again the Lord brought about reformation: the so-called Liberation of 1944. Again, it was a return to the true doctrine of God’s Word and faithful church government. Yet again, the Lord graciously brought about separation between the true church and what had become a false church.
The Buiten-verband issue
That separation, by which the Lord preserved His church, came under attack in the 1960s when some leading figures in the churches made slighting comments about the Liberation, and especially about the doctrine of the church. They sought a greater openness to ‘outside’ Christians and sought to ‘lower the bar’ by reducing the confessions, with some suggesting that we have just the Apostles’ Creed. The upshot was that a number of members left and later formed the Netherlands Reformed Churches, with some very liberal views. Again, the Lord spared the churches of the Liberation. Here in Australia, despite some rumblings of sympathy for those who eventually left the Liberated churches, we were spared the upheaval and its consequences that took place in what many still considered to be our Dutch ‘mother’ churches.
Decline in the GKV
Whilst it appeared that in the Netherlands the Liberated churches had ‘won the battle’ it became evident later that they had ‘lost the war’. The liberal thinking of those who left appeared to have taken root in the Liberated churches. Indeed, there is now a display of unity between those who left in the 1960s and those who had, in the 1960s, remained true to the confessions. The love and dedication to the truth subsided. Unity was established with religious bodies from all around the globe without sufficient regard for their faithfulness to the Scriptures. Moreover, postmodernism with its ‘new hermeneutics’ gave rise to a ‘Scripture criticism’, reinterpretation of Scriptural truths in relation to the 4th commandment and Sunday rest, the 7th commandment and marriage and divorce, a host of less-than-reformed hymns, opening up Holy Supper celebration, moves toward women in office, etc.
A new Liberation
Again, the Lord stepped in to preserve His church. In 2003, by the grace of God, another Liberation took place; but by this time only a remnant was saved from the deviations taking hold. The newly liberated came to be called De Gereformeerde Kerken (DGK). They’ve not had it easy and have had to endure unjustified criticism. The Canadian Reformed churches, at two of their synods, and in what can only be described as remarkable ignorance to what was going on, even accused the DGK of schism! Our own FRCA synods have shown an extraordinary reluctance to embrace and support these fledgling churches seeking to hold onto the truth. What we have done is to put pressure on them to unite with another bond of churches, some of whom broke away from the DGK, without us knowing well all the circumstances. May the Lord keep them faithful to Him so that they do not compromise the truth in order to appease overseas calls for unity, unless it is a unity in the truth.
Meanwhile, we do well to remember “let him who stands take heed lest he fall”. Satan’s attacks are many and varied. It’s so tempting to water down the doctrine in order to promote fellowship with others. We don’t like to be different. It’s so much easier, so much more comfortable, to rub out the boundaries governed by truth and obedience.
Unity at the cost of the truth
Rev P van Gurp, in a sermon on Hebrews 11:10 here in Australia on Reformation Day in 1989,[i] said that people tend to think that the only doctrine Luther was concerned about was justification by faith. And then the next step is that people say, as long as you believe that central doctrine, we can have unity. That, he added, “is what the PCEA said: all who believe in justification by faith more or less belong to the church. Every church that has this doctrine – whether Baptist, Methodist or whatever, if it has this central doctrine (justification by faith) – every church that confesses this doctrine is a church – more or less pure, but we reckon it as a church. And people can then stay in his or her church, but we are united in this doctrine.” But we confess that a Christian must believe “all that is promised in the Gospel” (Lord’s Day 7) and that the true church “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it…” (BCF 29).
The walls of the new Jerusalem
Rev van Gurp went on to proclaim that Christ’s church, symbolised in Scripture by the new Jerusalem in the process of coming down from heaven, has walls. And those walls are built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles – in other words, the walls are the doctrine proclaimed by the prophets and apostles. Walls keep out the enemy and the walls of the doctrine of God’s Word are under continual attack from Satan. However, the church is safe when the doctrine is kept, safely maintained in the church. That is: the full doctrine of salvation.
For Paul says: I have brought, expounded, preached the full counsel of God. I have not withheld anything. The full counsel of God. Not only salvation by faith but also, for example, the doctrine of the covenant, infant baptism, the doctrine about the church, doctrine about the discipline in the church, etc. That is your comfort. Up till now the LORD has seen to it that this doctrine, this full doctrine, has been preserved. Whenever, by the grace of God, the church fights to preserve that true doctrine, you and your children are safe within the walls of the church.
For God says: I have engraved these walls in the palms of my hand – the walls of Jerusalem, the city with the twelve foundations, the New Testament church. It is in the process of coming down out of heaven. God is her architect and builder and He will bring it to its fulfilment.
Jerusalem is built so well,
it is the pride of Israel,
securely knit are its foundations
[i] Sermon held in the FRC Mt Nasura (then FRC Bedfordale) on October 29, 1989.