Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

Taking Our Heritage Into the Twenty-first Century: Part I

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
Editor's Note: The following is a condensation of a speech given by Rev. C.A. Schouls at the 1997 Church day on September 1 in London, Ontario. It will appear in this and next month's issue.
As Free Reformed churches we are standing on the threshold of a new century and sometimes voices of concern are raised among us as to how we shall do in that century. Some of these voices cry out for more openness to others of like precious faith, while others are waving warning signals rather vigorously, reminding us that our strength lies in our isolation. This nineteenth century slogan, the cry of Groen Van Prinsterer, a lonely Christian parliamentarian in a viciously liberal Dutch government, has been too often taken over by concerned Christians since then, with little regard for the situation of the church in the world today.

It is a fact that as Free Reformed churches we have for many years lived in isolation, almost naturally and by default. Language, culture and theological traditions tend to cast up formidable walls which are not easily scaled, let alone brought down to proper proportions. We have been cut off from the main stream of North American church life and that has had many beneficial effects. Our isolation has allowed us nearly a half century of breathing space, giving us time to become established; to shoot roots and develop a certain identity. But if there is any one critical truth facing our churches today it is this: the time of isolation is over. And so, the acute question which will keep us occupied for the next number of years, provided the Lord will tarry, is this: How will we deal with this fact?

It seems to me that two obvious answers can be rather briefly mentioned and, almost as quickly, dismissed. We can say, "Yes, the time for isolation is over; therefore let's do away with everything and anything that still marks us as different from other North American churches. Let us burn the wooden shoes; let us change our practices with respect to the sacraments and various ceremonies; let us change our liturgies and order of worship; let us sing hymns instead of Psalms; Let us become North American." What happens then is, everything is up for grabs. Everything goes and no one bothers to ask, "but is this or that practice rooted in Scripture or not?"

Or we can say "We maintain our isolation. Our way is time-tested and therefore correct; hence, it must follow that anything different cannot be as good as what we now have. Therefore, we will consider no changes of any kind, neither in language nor in liturgy, for it will affect our doctrine. We will make no changes in church life and its various organizations. We will stand exactly where our fathers stood and sit where they sat. We will not be moved. If others want to join us, they must become just like us. We will never change."

Although they are given in rather black and white contrasts, you probably recognize the images. It is of great interest and importance to note that all ethnic communities, including churches, have gone through the same struggle at a certain stage in their development. Many Dutch Reformed children in Grand Rapids, whose parents and in many cases, grandparents, had emigrated from the Netherlands, were still being taught in the Dutch language in Christian schools in the early years of this century. Why? So they could understand sermons still preached in Dutch, for it was feared that if the churches switched to English only, it would bring in all those heresies which could thrive only in the English language. The history of the Christian Reformed Church in the United States is, in part. the history of this struggle and the CRC has not always fared well in this. Will this be true of our Free Reformed churches too? It may well be, but I think it need not be.

It is with this in mind that I want to consider with you "Taking our Heritage into the 21st Century", but I would like to add three other "H's" to it, namely the 4 H's of Free Reformed church life as we prepare to enter 21st century, namely Heritage, Holiness, Honesty and Hope.

Here's where I will put my main emphasis. for it should be clear that in our struggle to break out of our isolation, we must preserve our heritage. If this were not true, then our having lived separately for nearly fifty years becomes not only meaningless, but a farce. What do we mean by "heritage"? Heritage is more than property that is passed down from our ancestors. It involves tradition and a way of thinking which is almost inbred. The concept heritage includes what we often refer to as "distinctives," but we should be careful to keep these two things separate. Heritage involves something real, concrete while "distinctives" are harder to pin down. What is the heritage which we ought to preserve? I believe our heritage can be found at various levels, one built upon the other. none of which can be missing.

1. Our heritage is Christian. This may seem obvious, but it is especially in our society that this needs be stressed. We really cannot say that we are still living in a Christian society; certainly not in a Christian world. Much of world never was Christian and if we think it was, we are suffering from tunnel vision. Even our Western, white, Caucasian society is no longer mainly Christian. We may not be in the exact same conditions as western Europe, but we are following, socially and culturally, to some extent, in its wake. If we consider that in England it is projected that early in the 21st century there will be more Muslims than Anglicans, it makes one realize with a start that our Christian heritage, in the broadest possible sense of the word is not be taken for granted.

This Christian heritage, such as it is, is of such a nature that it should not only distinguish us from other religions. but it should mark us as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, as people who are of a unique character. If we are true Christians, we live in this world as those possessing all things, yet we are also pilgrims passing through the world. We are possessors because our Lord is King over all; but we are pilgrims because this current world is not our home. We are passing through and will not return until all things are made new. This possessor/pilgrim identity makes for a tension in this life which manifests itself in the struggle of being in the world, not of the world; living as citizens of heaven, seeking the things which are above, while still very much having to contend with the weakness of the flesh and the ravages of indwelling sin.

If we have been bought by the blood of Christ and set free from control of the prince of this world, this will become visible in this life, and in this world. The truly Christian heritage Is one of redemption and separation. It is living in the Truth, which is Lord Jesus Christ.

This has far reaching implications touching every aspect of life. Being a Christian is not just living with a hope for the future. It is not only that our spiritual body will be set free to enter heaven at death. No, being a Christian has to do with life today. It has to do with dating, marriage. sexuality, work, social relations, economics, child-rearing, education, discipline--you name it, It all falls within the scope of the other life, the citizenship in heaven and the pursuit of godliness. This is the Christian heritage in its broadest general terms.

2. Our heritage is Reformed. It is further refined in the great Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The gradual layering of neglect, ignorance and heresy had turned the visible church into a structure so brittle that the attempt to cleanse and restore It caused it to shatter. Rather than revamp a corrupt system. the Spirit of the Lord brought forth something new. The Reformers, in various ways and to various degrees. once again set out the great truths of salvation by grace, from beginning to end. Just think of these powerful slogans: Scripture alone, Faith alone, Grace alone.

This is the second great level of heritage which is ours to be preserved. Now, we must not think of this as levels such as found on a multi-tiered wedding cake--each one being a little smaller than the one beneath. It is not so that there is the great mass of Christianity and a smaller group which is Reformed and then a tiny community of Free Reformed and that, as we progress upwards through these layers, Christianity is limited to each community. At the same time, we cannot say that it matters not at all what our heritage may be as long as it falls within the boundary of Christianity at large.

We do recognize that others, who are not of the exact same persuasion we are, can be Christians and that even those who cannot be counted in the large and loosely defined Reformed world may be Christians. But we do believe that the truths rediscovered by the Reformation are the truths of basic, fully Biblical Christianity. If we were to draw a picture of the various levels, we would have to make two pictures, one representing the Christian world from the perspective of numbers only; then the Reformed level would sit on the Christian level and be quite a bit smaller. However, were we to present this picture from the perspective of theological truth, I would be bold to say that we could show Reformed and Christian as being identical and that all that is outside of the Reformed world is either immature in development or an aberration of the truth. Please, realize we are not speaking of individuals,--but of systems of thought. There are many beautiful individual Christians out there whose thought system has not yet fully developed-- and there are, sad to say, many in Reformed churches whose doctrine is all in order, whose world and life view sparkles and is clear as a bell, but whose personal piety is totally lacking and who are an embarrassment to the name of the Lord. When we say we have the truth and others do not, we must do so carefully, for it is so easy to become proud of what we have and who we are. We have nothing to be proud of.

3. Our heritage is Free Reformed. But is not Free Reformed something special? Indeed, and as we now come to the third level of our heritage, it behoves us to be even more careful in our assessment. I trust you know the history of the Free Reformed Churches. By that history I mean not only the years on this continent, but the time from 1834 on. That is the year of the Secession from a state church which had become, by and large, corrupt.

What is the FRC heritage? This is difficult to define, even to describe, but some effort should be made. If we cannot come to any conclusion or definition, we really have no right to a separate existence. To come to some understanding of what is Free Reformed, one has to go into the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace. Some may say it involves the truth of how Christ saves the sinner. This latter statement is very dear and goes to the heart of our religion. There is, however, a danger that this saving work is described only in so far as it relates to the issues leading up to salvation-- often this is referred to as the way to Christ. Sometimes the issues which result from salvation are then not sufficiently considered. However, if we take the Covenant of Grace as our starting point in this discussion, we can get a handle on some aspect of what is so special about being Free Reformed.

We believe and it is the position of our churches, that the covenant of Grace, is that particular form of the administration of salvation in which God, in Christ, gives himself as Mediator to the sinner who, in the way of the Covenant, becomes the possession of God. (J. J. Vander Schuit)

We hold that the Covenant is made with believers and all their children. That means that in our preaching the congregation is addressed as belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ, objectively speaking. This does not mean we believe that everyone is saved in the subjective sense, but that Christ has claims on the whole congregation, claims which cannot be shrugged off. In fact, anyone's refusal to honour these claims will result in a special penalty being executed, namely the penalty of God's covenantal wrath. Keeping all this straight allows the preacher to make strong, urgent appeals to the congregation, and forces him to lay out, from time to time, the marks whereby anyone may know whether he or she is indeed saved, and challenges his hearers to faithful, thankful obedience. In fact, this latter idea is certainly included in Vander Schuit's definition when he speaks of "becoming the possession of God."

If we think this through, we will see that our understanding of the covenant will determine how we view the congregation. Furthermore, it issues in distinctive, Free Reformed preaching which is the Appealing and Actual, Experiential and Encouraging, Christ centred, Clear and Concrete, Serious and Evangelical, Fresh, Spiritual, Historical and Orderly, Penetrating and yet Compassionate, provoking to Jealousy and creating Expectancy', Powerful, Guiding, Inviting, Uncovering and Discriminating, Prophetic and Priestly, Generous, Scriptural, Theological- Trinitarian, Comforting and Exhorting, Warm, Concise and Clear Exposition of Scripture.

This check list cannot be worked out right now, of course, but this is the measure of preaching which will stand the test of Scripture applied by God's people who have received some gift to discriminate. I may not say that such preaching cannot be found in other Reformed traditions. Where it is, we ought to be all the more zealous for closer contact. Where it is not, but genuine interest is expressed for it, we ought to be all the more zealous for sharing this vision. Where it is lacking on our own pulpits, the elders, as well as all believers, have the precious task to guide their minister even as Aquilia and Priscilla made the gospel more fully known to Apollos.

It is this covenantal view and its preaching which is our peculiar heritage. It is also understandable that the differences which there are amongst us are there precisely because of divergent ideas on these issues. If, for example, one should teach the error that the covenant is made with the elect only and that young people should wait to see if the presence of certain graces developing in them will assure them of their election, one ought not to be surprised if some of such people show little response to covenantal demands of obedience and holiness. Why should they. if they are not certain they are elect? And will they, in turn, not be leery of others who have been taught they are in the covenant and therefore should live as covenant children? Will the one not accuse the other of presumption, while the other sees the one as living in dangerous passivity?

I have drawn over-simplified sketches, but the realities are there. What we need is to come to greater understanding of the things which we profess to treasure most, so that they can come to life amongst us.

This Covenantal emphasis is not something new nor was it invented after 1834, but it is the logical development of the thought of the great Reformers. It is the Scriptural approach to the realities of sin and grace, salvation and service.

This then is our heritage: an understanding of the promises of God and a presentation of these promises to the congregation in such a way that no one can be in doubt as to the willingness of the Lord to save; no one can doubt the ability and availability of the Saviour and there can be no mistake about the demands made of the saved to live for Him as pilgrims on this earth. This heritage we must safeguard with all our might, not to protect some cultural icon, nor to prolong the life of some ethnic peculiarity. but to pass on to the generations to come the faith of the fathers.

It stands to reason that if there be things which will hinder the clear transmission of this heritage, these ought to be discarded. Here we come into a sensitive area. The general principle is that anything which detracts from or hinders the effective preaching of the Word, as outlined above, ought not to be kept, while anything which will assist or undergird such preaching ought to be promoted. This may leave a wide array of things indifferent--and that is how we ought to treat them--things indifferent. Sanctified common sense, guided by mature brotherly love, founded in the Scriptures, ought to guide us through what can be a prickly business. It is in this area especially that an appeal to deal gently and in good manners with each other is not out of place. Sad to say, sometimes the children of the world display more of this gentleness and good manners than do those who call themselves children of light.

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