The Church in the New Year: Called to Work
The following article by Professor David J. Engelsma appeared in the January 1, 1994 edition of the Standard Bearer.
What 1994 will mean for the true church in North America is not our concern. We may not speculate. This belongs to the secret things of the counsel of God that are exclusively for Him. It is comfort to the Reformed church, as it is to the believer personally, that the new year will be the unfolding of the eternal plan of the sovereign God in the exalted Lord Jesus Christ.
Our concern is the revealed will of God for the church. His will is that the church work. The reason for the continuation of history in this new year is the church. God has a church that must be gathered and saved. Since the Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves this church “by His Spirit and Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 54) and since He does this through the instrumentality of the true church, the true church has a calling to work.
It is the true church that has a sacred, solemn mandate from the Lord.
The true church is the instituted congregation that is sound in doctrine, pure in the administration of the sacraments, and faithful in the exercise of discipline (Belgic Confession, Art. 29).
There is also a false church, characterized by rejection of the authority of Holy Scripture and corruption of the gospel of grace. She too has a work. Her work is to hate and oppose the true church. She has her mandate from the devil.
The departing church has one calling from the Lord, and one only: Repent! It belongs to the work of the true church that she bring this calling from the Lord to the church that is in the process of falling away from the truth.
As true churches (though by no means perfect churches), the Protestant Reformed congregations are called by God to work in 1994. This work is first, to hold fast what they have. The importance and difficulty of this task for a church should be evident from the widespread abandonment of the fundamentals of the Christian faith by so many churches in our day.
That which we are to hold fast is the Christian faith as set forth in the Reformed creeds. It is the Reformed faith, therefore, with its distinctive doctrines of God’s sovereignty both in redemption and providence and of salvation by grace alone. Necessarily implied is the understanding and confession of the creedal Reformed faith by the Protestant Reformed Churches as teaching sovereign, particular grace in the preaching of the gospel and an unconditional covenant of grace with the elect in Christ, Head and Mediator of the covenant.
This faith includes a life of thankfulness, obedience, and holiness.
Holding fast the faith, will require tremendous effort in the Spirit of Christ. It will take sound preaching; faithful instruction of the young in catechism; vigilant oversight of the preaching and teaching by capable elders; courageous discipline of those members who teach or live contrary to the rule; and the right judgment on all issues coming before them by the broader assemblies.
Discipline is essential. A main reason for the apostasy of the departing and the false churches is the failure of the churches to discipline the heretics. Conservatives are great talkers and writers. But without the discipline that shuts the mouths of the gainsayers of the faith and that cuts the cancer of the lie or the unholiness from the body of the church, there can be no holding fast the truth.
Christ’s mandate to the true church, secondly, is that she exert herself to grow spiritually. The church must “grow up into him in all things” (Eph. 4:15). Through the exercise and use of the means of grace, there must be growth in knowing Christ, in glorifying and enjoying God, and in loving the neighbor, especially the other members of the congregation. Holding fast the faith does not imply spiritual stagnation.
Thirdly, the true church is called to preach and confess the truth to those outside the church. The PR congregations must engage in missions and evangelism at home and abroad to the utmost of their power. A chief reason for another year is the gathering of the church out of all nations and the bringing to repentance of every member of this elect church (Matt. 28:18-20; II Pet. 3:9).
We ought to address the scattered sheep in the Reformed community, as well as in Protestantism at large, as God gives us the opportunity, for their help.
We ought to confess boldly to a hostile world, for its condemnation. Against its theory of evolution, we confess biblical creation. Against its feminism, we confess the biblical family. Against its adultery, we confess the sanctity of biblical marriage.
Apart from other considerations, this work of the true church requires that the faithful congregation live and work together with like-minded congregations in synodical federation. One congregation in her solitude cannot by herself do the work. She cannot do the work of missions. She cannot maintain the seminary that is basic to the defense of, the faith and to the church’s own spiritual growth. She cannot in the long, or not so long, run even hold fast the faith for herself. Holding fast the faith is done in the unity of the church with the help of the multitude of counselors.
Accounting for the denomination, in the context of the unity of the church, Herman Hoeksema wrote:
This seeking of fellowship and unity of the local congregations is motivated also by the practical need they have of one another, because in unity there is strength. Thus, they need one another to establish a theological seminary for the training of ministers of the Word; for the development of their common confession, and for the fulfillment of their mandate in regard to the work of missions (Reformed Dogmatics, pp.622, 623).
An aspect of the work of the PR congregations in 1994, therefore, will be that they carefully nurture and endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace among themselves in the synodical union.
The church must also know what does not belong to the work assigned her by her Lord. She is not called to set herself to the task of seeing to it that she grows numerically. Numerical growth is not the business of the church. It is rather the business of the Lord. Just as no one can add an inch to his height, so the church cannot add one member to her fellowship. Just as each of us leaves his physical growth to the Lord, so must the church leave her numerical growth to the Lord. The church that does labor to grow numerically invariably adopts carnal measures, e.g., watering down the preaching and confession; relaxing the discipline; and introducing entertainment – “contemporary music” and drama. God curses this ambition to grow with cancerous growth that destroys the church as a spiritual body of Christ.It is not the calling of the PRC in 1994 to grow. It is their calling to be faithful to the Word of God. Should this mean their loss of members, so be it.
Not that we are opposed to numerical growth. On the contrary, we rejoice in it, if God wills it and accomplishes it: One reason is that this enables us to do still more in the great work that we have as a denomination of churches and as a covenant community. There is today a crying need for a Reformed college in the United States, an institution of higher learning that is solidly based on and unashamedly faithful to the Reformed confessions. But this demands a sizable supporting constituency.
Neither is it the duty of the true church to Christianize North America. Not one text in all of the Bible gives the church this preposterous mandate.
Nor is it our responsibility to be popular. It is with the church as with the individual Christian, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Confession of the truth and a walk in holiness will mean hatred and ridicule.
Let not the PRC with the other true churches of God in the world underestimate the difficulty of the work. 1994 will be fraught with peril. For it is the last hour. The world sinks away to the depths of lawlessness. The nominal church is far advanced in the great apostasy. The god of this world seduces the bride of Christ with a passion.
But neither may the church despair of the possibility of doing the work or even of great and glorious fruits. 1994 is full of promise. For it is, decisively, “anno domini,” the year of the Lord.” The risen Christ is Lord in and over 1994. He is also Lord by His Word and Spirit in and over the church. Not only does He give the mandate, but also He Himself carries out the work by means of the church.
The church’s work is not in vain in the Lord.
And she knows it.