Whose honour has priority: the LORD’s, or man’s?

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A glance through Church History reveals a series of crisis situations which the LORD has graciously used to reform His church, to bring about a return to the Truth of God’s Word. Ask at each reformation, at each crisis, What was the crux of the matter here? and invariably it boils down to the question of whose word and whose honour is to be given priority: the LORD’s, or man’s?

THE REFORMATION

In essence, that was the issue in the great Reformation of the 16th century. When the Roman Catholic clergy said that the members of the church could partly earn their own salvation, they strayed from God’s Word by attributing to man an honour he didn’t deserve and so they devalued the work of Christ. They robbed Him of His glory because the people no longer saw their utter, total dependence on Christ’s work of salvation and the Spirit’s work of regeneration.

What the Roman church didn’t realise was that by honouring man with the ability to earn his own salvation, they also robbed him of all comfort. Luther experienced this firsthand. His tormented soul craved the comfort of knowing that he was saved, but all the self-inflicted punishment in the world couldn’t bring him the peace of mind he desperately desired. If his salvation depended partly on himself, how could he be confident that he was saved? It wasn’t till the Holy Spirit opened his eyes through the study of God’s Word that Luther understood his utter dependence on God’s promises through Christ’s redemptive work. It was therefore to Christ alone that all honour for salvation was due.

Luther learned that only God’s Word gave rest and it did so by focussing all attention on Christ’s work throughout the history of salvation. This awareness led him, standing before the officials and dignitaries at Worms, to say that he was prepared to retract all he had ever written against the Roman Church provided it could be proven that he was in conflict with the Word of God. Filled with the Holy Spirit, his desire to bow before the will of his Lord and Saviour, to honour Him alone, led him to speak boldly the famous words: “Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.” The honour of God, the reverence for His holy Word, was more important to Luther than pleasing dignitaries, upholding the unity of the Roman Church, or honouring the pope. If necessary, he would surrender his position at the University of Wittenberg, sacrifice his membership of the church, lose his friends and even give up his life for the honour of the Lord. He fought for the truth because to tamper with that truth was to rob God of His glory.

FIRST SECESSION

The question of whose word and honour was to be upheld was again at stake in the events around 1834. The key figure, Rev H de Cock, like any recent graduate from university at the time, had soaked up the “enlightened” teachings that man wasn’t really so bad. By following the good example of Jesus and other biblical figures one could, it was felt, be assured of a place in heaven. The reformed churches in the Netherlands had sunk back into Roman Catholic ways of thinking. Christ the Redeemer had been reduced to an example of good works for others to follow.

But the LORD hides things from the wise and prudent and reveals them to babes. An elderly church member, Klaas Kuipinga, said to Rev. H. de Cock, “If I had to contribute one sigh to my salvation I would be lost forever”. This simple statement echoed the Word of God and undermined a whole religious ideology based on the “enlightened” idea that man could earn, at least partly, his own salvation. It was the same message Luther had learned: man is totally depraved, totally dependent on the work of Jesus Christ. Kuipinga’s simple confession robbed man of any glorying in his own ability by redirecting him back to his total dependence on Christ, Who alone is worthy of all honour for man’s salvation.

The LORD used Kuipinga’s words as a catalyst to bring Rev. de Cock to see his total dependence on Christ. De Cock rejoiced in the true comfort this gave and praised God for it. His preaching changed dramatically and drew others to that comfort. His new-found faith in Christ also gave Rev. de Cock the boldness to baptise children brought to him by parents from other congregations even though he knew that the modern ministers of those congregations would be greatly offended. Believing parents could not honestly promise to nurture their children in accordance with the doctrine taught by “enlightened” ministers who baptised in the name of faith, hope and charity instead of in the name of the Triune God.

The inseparable link between the honour of God and faithfulness to his Word also gave de Cock the boldness to write a booklet in which he accused two ministers of being wolves because their “enlightened” views undermined the truth of God’s Word. These ministers had, in line with the prevailing views of the time, taught that people were not dead in sin. They said that by following the “good example” of Jesus in showing love and compassion one could earn salvation. Thereby these misguided ministers created doubts in the minds of the hearers, not only robbing the believers of their only comfort in the completed sacrifice of Christ but also robbing Christ of His glory. He alone is the atoning sacrifice for all our sins.

THE LIBERATION OF 1944

The same issue was at stake in the lead up to the Liberation of 1944. When the synod bound the churches to accept Kuyper’s idea that the promises made at baptism did not necessarily apply to all those who were baptised, but only to those who would later show that they must have received a “seed of faith” at baptism, it weakened the promises of God. How reliable now were the covenant promises responded to at baptism? And how could believers now glorify God for the comfort of knowing that their children who died in infancy were with the Lord if those promises rested on a shaky foundation? After all, who could tell whether those infants had received the “seed of faith”. By estranging believers from the promises of God, the synod robbed God of His rights and of His glory.

Moreover, synod exalted itself above the Word of God and persecuted those who wanted to be faithful to God’s Word. Synod’s attack on the Word of God was an attack on the bride of Christ and thereby on Christ Himself.

Those in the church who minimised the seriousness of what the synod had done and, for whatever reason, remained in the synodical churches, committed themselves and their descendants to the liberalism that became rampant in those churches. On the other hand, those who by the grace of God joined the Liberation rejoiced that Christ had liberated them from teachings which devalued the comfort of God’s promises. At the meeting of the Act of Liberation and Return they sang from Psalm 124:3

God rescued us from teeth that rip and tear.
Praise him who broke the fowler’s deadly snare.
We have escaped, are free now like a bird.
Our help comes from the Lord who hears our prayer,
from him who shaped creation by his word.

Hereby they acknowledged the Liberation as the gracious work of the LORD. That is why subsequent dialogue aimed at unity with “synodical” churches revolved around their need to see the Liberation as a work of the LORD. He was to receive the honour for what He had graciously done in upholding the glory of His name, the glory of salvation based exclusively on the promises of salvation in Christ alone. Thereby He preserved His Church through the Liberation.

THE 1967 ISSUE

As with any Reformation there are those who come along for the wrong reasons. In 1944 there were those who liberated themselves in order to have greater freedom from governing authorities in the church. They were not filled with holy zeal for the Lord but sought a greater tolerance for ministers whose views deviated from God’s Word. This became evident over a number of years. For example, when in later years one of the Liberated ministers taught, contrary to Scripture and confession, that when believers die their soul does not immediately go to heaven but remains in the earth till Christ returns, there were those who sought tolerance for this view. But here again a view was promoted which robbed believers of comfort, robbed God’s Word of its promises, and robbed God of the praise we give for that comfort when one of our loved ones are taken up to the Lord.

Crisis points in Church history reveal the same sad refrain which can be traced right back to the days of the Pharisees, and undoubtedly earlier: an unwillingness to give Christ all honour by devaluing His Word and work. Tolerance of unscriptural views always leads to robbery, to the ultimate theft: robbing God of His glory.

HUMBLE FAITH

To be sure, we must do good works. We are called to present our lives as a “living sacrifice of thankfulness” [i] to God for the salvation He obtained for us by His suffering and death, to confess Him, to serve Him with zeal and to fight faithfully against sin and Satan. [ii] And we must do that in thankfulness. But we must be aware that none of this in anyway contributes to the salvation Christ has already obtained for us. That assurance of salvation is something we must simply believe and embrace thankfully, like a little child. As Rev. de Marie recently said in a brief meditation:

“Simple faith that expects everything from the Lord and His blessing is far more important to God than human accomplishments or self-importance. The instruction is clear: be humble before the Lord and one another. This pleases the Lord. The Kingdom of God is intended for such as these.

The Lord continues even more strongly, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Without such humility and trust, eternal salvation is not intended for you.”[iii]

In everything—creation, our salvation in Jesus Christ alone, our sanctification by the Holy Spirit, covenant fellowship with the LORD, His daily care over us, the good works we are enabled to perform—the honour is all the LORD’s alone. As we confess in BCF Art. 23: “We give all glory to God, humble ourselves before Him, and acknowledge ourselves to be what we are. We do not claim anything for ourselves or our merits but rely and rest on the only obedience of Jesus Christ crucified; His obedience is ours when we believe in Him.”

 

[i] LD 32
[ii] LD 12
[iii] JULY 28, 2023 – LIKE A CHILD – Bouwen en Bewaren (bouwen-en-bewaren.nl)