Recently articles have been published on this site about efforts in Holland and America to entice ‘outsiders’ to church. Such efforts involve changing the church’s doctrine and practices, making them acceptable to the world so that strangers feel more ‘at home’ in church. Such ‘adjustments’ to doctrine and practices can also come about through attempts to unite with other church federations. Meanwhile, those who express Scripturally-based concerns at such developments risk being accused of putting up walls around the church.
The late Rev K Bruning, in a Kojonup address,[i] directs the hearers’ attention to Psalm 48, that beautiful song on the City of God’s Church in which the psalmist exults in the strength and protective qualities of Zion’s walls and fortresses. Rev Bruning links this to the New Testament “congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ” as “it lies exposed and accessible to the world”.
That church, if it is to be worthy of that name, is a ‘bulwark of the Truth’ with beautiful promises. To that church the Lord has given “the prophetic perspective of the New Jerusalem which will never close her twelve gates” (Rev 21). Christ, the Prince of Easter, has promised her: “Lo, I am always with you, even to the end of the age.”
Rev Bruning’s address remains as relevant for today as it was then. Here is the first part:
The Church, Bulwark of the Truth 1
This characterisation of the Church of the Lord [as ‘bulwark of the truth’] tells us immediately two things: (1) it is a glorious name; and (2) it is a threatening name.
While working on this speech, I was reading an English booklet which gave a definition of a castle (a citadel or bulwark). It said: “a castle is a building that will do two things at once: it shelters a great man and his family in some comfort, and it keeps out his enemies”.
Well, this definition corresponds well with the gist and intent of our topic, and in particular with that characterisation of the Church: a bulwark of the truth. It is indeed a beautiful name for the Church, and what’s more, it is also a scriptural name.
A glorious name
Perhaps you’ve thought already of Psalm 48, that beautiful song on the City of God’s Church. Psalm 48 glories in the God of the holy mountain of Zion, and therefore in the Zion of the holy God! And the most special glory of Zion is that it is so strong and well protected.
Just take a stroll around Zion, inspect and carefully assess her front wall. Have a look in her fortresses and towers, pay attention to her position, design and defence installations, and you will be amazed at the strength, invincibility and safety of this Zion. Not only will you then talk about her with proper respect, but also speak of her to the next generation. How glorious it is to dwell there in safety.
Indeed, it is truly a glorious name for the Church: bulwark of the truth. If only I know how to apply that name, also to the Church of today, and to our life in and with that Church of God and Jesus Christ. Yes, we are talking about the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we no longer see walls and fortresses surrounding the congregation, as was the case with Jerusalem of old. That’s right; the congregation of Jesus Christ lies, as it were, exposed and accessible to the world. It is an open community.
A threatening name
However, as said already, this name is also a threatening one. That may seem strange, but it is true. It is only natural that this bulwark irresistibly attracts enmity and enemies.
Just read again the song of this bulwark, Psalm 48. How many enemies have not already attacked this city and stronghold? It has almost been siege upon siege, attack upon attack. O, the longing to conquer this city and kill its citizens, to demolish its walls and fortresses and get rid of them for ever.
Why did that happen? Well, it was and still is the furious enmity against God and against all His works.
You will in fact find this attack against Zion everywhere in the Bible, on almost every one of its pages from beginning to end.
A history of attacks
It began already with Cain and Abel; and has continued on throughout that long struggle of the old dispensation with the patriarchs and twelve tribes of Israel. That struggle reached its climax in the incarnation and rejection of the Christ and was re-kindled after His ascension with fresh energy and hatred against the Church of Jesus Christ on earth.
The wars of the Lord have raged continuously. Zion has in fact never been without threatening enemies.
And we ourselves have experienced it. It is, in a sense, a mark of the true church that there is fighting about her and against her. In particular now, in the new dispensation, since Easter and Ascension.
What else could you expect, now that Christ has revealed to us that He saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning? We have also seen and understood what John at Patmos tells us, that when the male child of the woman is caught up to heaven, the beast in its anger persecutes the woman, that is the Church in the world.
In this regard we should not have too many illusions. Or else, ask ourselves whether things around us aren’t getting too peaceful and too quiet. Is this mark of the struggle about and against Zion still a mark of our church, and of us, Zion’s citizens?
Attacks on the truth
In this attack against Zion we know what the issues are. They are always about God and His work of salvation, and about the faithfulness of the Church!
Indeed, that’s what the Church is: bulwark of the truth. It is the place of peace and rest where the children and citizens of Zion sing their songs of peace because of the redeeming blood of Christ and of His resurrection glory; but where they also, at the same time and in the same breath, know how to sing the psalms of warfare, because Zion continues to attract the enemies, and the battle will not end before the great day of the Lord.
And now, after this somewhat extended introduction, we have to discern another important element regarding this bulwark of the truth, which will lead us to the heart of our topic for today.
No automatic safety
What we have in mind is, that this protected and guarded bulwark, Zion, is not automatically certain of her continued existence and safety. For we know only too well, that after much misery Jerusalem and Zion did eventually fall prey to the enemy.
And it has happened more than once that Jerusalem was overrun by enemies, and that her citizens perished miserably. Didn’t the Babylonians, and after them the Romans, play havoc with this city of God? The bulwark of Zion was razed despite all her fortresses and strongholds.
What we are saying is, that Jerusalem can fall; and—we can add —that here and there the church can be destroyed. The church does not automatically remain strong and safe.
Also not the churches in Australia. Haven’t many ‘candlesticks’ in the world already disappeared for ever? Aren’t the churches of Asia minor a bitter example, to mention only them?
Will the church of our lord Jesus Christ persevere here?
Therefore the question confronts us: will we as church of Christ persevere in this country? Do we have a future? Will we be able to resist all attacks? Will the bulwark of the truth remain what she is and must be? This is our concern; and a vague disquiet compels us to critically examine this question.
This disquiet is not motivated by what I read in a thesis submitted recently to the Australian National University by C.L. Beltz.
In his essay this researcher devoted a review to the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. What he writes about our churches is certainly worth reading. But as regards the future of our churches this man is not very optimistic. He writes: “The very smallness of numbers places the Free Reformed Churches in a difficult position with regard to the future. The strict marriage pattern restricts the choice of partners for the next generation considerably.” And a little further on: “One may wonder what the future of these churches will be, if no substantial immigration reinforces their numbers. If the second generation adheres to the isolationist policy of their fathers, they will become locked up in themselves and never participate in or contribute to the society of their land of settlement.” And the only ray of light which the author still discerns is of no real benefit to us, on the contrary. The answer to the question about tomorrow’s security is found elsewhere.
The only security is to be bulwark of the truth
We may confidently put it this way: let the church remain bulwark of the truth, with full emphasis on these last words. That is the only security for the church.
Let me give an example from our recent history. When our churches were fully engaged in the battle against union membership, and therefore against the unions themselves, then the greatest danger was not the threatening boycott and its consequences, but the question of whether we would remain bulwark of the truth.
It is not the attack of the enemy that is dangerous; but the internal strength and value of the church are decisive. We may also say it this way: the church is never destroyed by enmity and attacks – Zion’s walls are too strong for that – but she will indeed fail as soon as she, as bulwark, ceases to be bulwark of the truth.
How can we remain bulwark of the truth?
And when we now have to answer the question: how shall we be able to remain bulwark of the truth, we need to give consideration to two major points, which we shall do in some further detail.
The church must, first of all, remain faithful to the good confession. Second, the church must continue to acclaim the Lord’s deeds, and show that in her conduct.
I will therefore elaborate somewhat on these two points, because I believe that with these two the Church as bulwark of the truth stands or falls. First then a few remarks about the Confession of the church. Now we should realise that we’re not talking about a confession which serves more or less as a passport; just take it from your pocket, hold it up for inspection, and walk on. That’s not what it is.
When I talk about the Confession of the Church, it concerns those confessed truths of God’s Word that haven’t only impressed me, and which I have accepted in my mind and conviction, but which have also penetrated deeply into my everyday life and completely direct and govern my behaviour.
When I say: Confession, then I say: God’s confessed Word, which controls me in doctrine and life. Whoever puts it that way, and sticks by it, won’t get confused when scatterbrains try to destroy the strength and value of the Confession by saying: The Confession is human endeavour, but the Bible is God’s Word, isn’t it?
At bottom, this playing off the one against the other is an unchristian business, inspired by the tricks of satan himself. Consider also that the sects in the world are sects for the very reason that they reject and despise the blessing of the unity of Scripture and Confession.
And let us at this point not forget what the Bible itself teaches, that when things go wrong, the chief cause is a violation of the good confession.
(To be continued)
[i] Kojonup is a town in Western Australia. For several decades, members of the Free Reformed Churches in Albany and Armadale would travel to Kojonup where a speaker would address the hearers about a relevant theological subject. This paper by Rev K Bruning was presented in 1966, a time when the truth of God’s Word was under attack in the Reformed Churches (liberated) in the Netherlands.