The gospel of Jesus Christ exposes the hearts of men.
There is a time when you can only judge men by their confessions. If they make strong confessions of the truth, quote HH enough times, and continually tell everyone how valiant they are for the truth, you believe them.
And then the gospel comes.
That happened at Byron Center PRC and Crete PRC.
Consistories that fancied themselves to be something, and members with a reputation for orthodoxy and courage, were exposed when the gospel came.
Men were exposed as cowards or quislings or as unbelievers.
Their heretofore strong confessions died on their lips as they realized they had lives to save. Talking about Christ and his gospel was one thing. But to lose something for it? Losing a spouse or a child or your school or your friend or your job? That is entirely something else.
The gospel is not finished exposing men.
That work of the Holy Spirit to expose men’s hearts continued at the September meeting of the classis of the Reformed Protestant Churches.
What was exposed?
Hearts that never loved the Reformed faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Hearts that did not love the covenant of grace that God establishes with believers and their seed.
What was decided at classis was not something novel.
No new thing was created.
What was decided at classis was that the Christian schools are a demand of the covenant as taught by Lord’s Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and the creeds are authoritative and teach the pure doctrine of scripture. Two Formula of Subscription exams were administered, and advice was given to a consistory about how it should proceed.
In response to this, some walk around with long faces and wring their hands.
Others have left the denomination, and more will leave.
It is not my intention in this post to convince men to stay. Just like I would never try to cajole someone to come to the RPC, I would never try to persuade you to stay.
You don’t need convincing.
You need a rebuke.
What happened at classis was the work of the Holy Spirit.
Such developments as took place there could never be the work of men.
Therefore, for men to declare that classis was rogue is to blaspheme the work of the Holy Spirit.
Men say that proper church polity was violated.
Those men grasp at straws.
What was violated was our deeply ingrained Protestant Reformed sense of what church polity should look like.
We may have come out of the PRC, but we are clinging very tightly to what it means to be PR.
The main issues that are brought up to prove that church polity was violated are the fact that two sets of credentials were brought to classis, the fact that delegates from the same congregation answered the questions of Article 41 differently, and the fact that two Formula of Subscription examinations were administered.
These things are not hard to explain.
The foundations of Sovereign RPC were shaken.
There was a question of whether the walls would continue to stand.
That is what happens, after all, when wolves enter the sheepfold.
Deacon Altena, laboring to be faithful to his calling as a watchman, brought another set of credentials.
He saw what it took classis and the rest of us some time to realize: there was only one faithful officebearer at Sovereign RPC. So he acted accordingly.
Classis judged that his action was in error and did not accept the second set of credentials.
I do not blame Deacon Altena for his actions. I have some sense of what he was going through. When I was at Byron Center PRC and after the decisions to suspend Rev. Lanning and relieve Elder Van Baren and me of our duties, I made a call that Saturday night. I called a man and told him that because of how wickedly our consistory was behaving, I wanted to take a decision to depose the entire consistory and declare myself and Elder Van Baren the only rightful remaining elders. I was going to do so based on what I thought was a similar action taken in 1953. (An extreme measure, no doubt, but you consider such things when the foundations are destroyed.) I asked for his advice. That man—a man for whom I have the utmost respect and a man whom the PRC has long slandered as being a man who has always wanted a split—told me I was wrong, told me I had my history wrong, and told me that I ought not to pursue such a course. (Odd advice from a man who has always wanted a split.) I took his advice. So I understand and empathize with Deacon Altena for taking such a drastic measure. The man’s church was being torn apart, and his flock was being savaged.
Things like multiple credentials coming to a meeting of classis have happened before in church history. Rev. VanderWal made mention of this in his blog “Reformed Polity–Classis (2).” It is beyond odd, then, that he takes such umbrage that there were two sets of credentials brought to this session of classis. (Rev. VanderWal has written much since classis. I tried to respond to his first post, here, but he declined to approve it).
Things like this happen in times of reformation. Don’t wring your hands about it. Give thanks to God that he is pleased to work reformation at all in our midst.
Deacon Altena also answered the questions of Article 41 of the Church Order differently than the other two delegates from his congregation.
That has upset some people.
But this, too, is easy to explain.
Deacon Altena was determined not to lie. Knowing he would answer to God for his answers, he was determined to answer them truthfully.
The two elders lied when they gave the answers that they did.
The consistory of Sovereign was not seeing to it that the schools were cared for, and they did need the help of classis. In fact, the two elders were doing everything in their power to prevent a school, up to and including savaging members of their flock over the issue. Deacon Altena saw this and could not in good conscience say other than what he did.
Would you criticize him for this?
Classis heard and saw all of this.
They responded appropriately.
They assigned a committee to bring advice and responded carefully and deliberately.
Although the RPC do not yet have church visitors, the Church Order article that speaks to church visitors says some beautiful things about the care congregations within the denomination are to have for one another. Article 44 of the Church Order speaks of by “advice and assistance” helping to “direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches.” Just because the Reformed Protestant Churches do not have church visitors does not mean that this principle of mutual care and oversight is to be discarded.
The September meeting of classis exhibited love and care on a scale that I have never before witnessed at a broader assembly.
It is not love for a congregation, a denomination, or its members to drag matters on for months and years, nor is it necessary. When the matters are clear, and when a church and her members are shown to be in great danger, classis must act, and it must act decisively.
Classis acted in such a manner when it administered Formula of Subscription exams to two of the officebearers of Sovereign RPC.
Some members of the denomination are upset about that.
Again, having come out of the PRC, some of us are clinging as tightly as we possibly can to what it means to be PR.
All we know is the PRC that no longer has a Formula of Subscription. Sure, they have a document that they call the Formula of Subscription that (unqualified) men will continue to sign, but it is an empty, toothless document for them.
What has the PRC done with the Formula of Subscription exam that is called for when there is suspicion of a man’s doctrine?
Four ministers in the PRC drafted a document that, in the words of their own synod, compromised justification by faith alone and the unconditional covenant and displaced Christ. The document that they drafted taught the same false doctrine that the churches “struggled” with for many years. None of those men ever wrote against or repudiated the false doctrine they had taught. On the contrary, one of them, Rev. Haak, said publicly on the floor of synod that not only did he believe that doctrine but that he was going to continue to teach that doctrine. Rev. Slopsema was similarly convicted, as he did continue to teach that doctrine, and on the pages of the Standard Bearer, no less. (You have to admire the sheer hubris of these men. To shove it right in the face of the denomination with absolutely no fear is quite something.) If ever (ever!) there was a need for a Formula of Subscription exam, it was in a situation like this. The Formula of Subscription and its calling for an exam were written for precisely a time like this. And yet, the denomination declines to administer it. And we all know why. Men must be protected. The reputations of men are above all.
When a Formula of Subscription exam was at one point administered in the PRC, it was an absolute farce. And one of the advisors to the synod knew it would be a farce, as he had to admonish the visitors before the session started that no one was allowed even to take personal notes of the proceedings. Larry, Moe, and Curly have more respectability than the delegates at that session of synod, especially considering the outcome.
Read the Formula of Subscription: “And further, if at any time the…classis…upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments…”
Classis acted appropriately when it administered the exams.
Having been delivered from such a morass as we were in in the PRC, let us not now protest and gripe when the Formula of Subscription is appropriately used.
Those exams exposed more than just the men who were examined.
Although it did just that.
If there was any doubt about conducting the Formula of Subscription exams at that time, that doubt was erased after the exams were concluded. One man dodged and evaded and refused to be clear about what he believed. The other man lied. And then fled.
Those who say the exams or the decisions taken after the exams were hasty should read Acts 5:1–11.
Continuing his work of exposing men’s hearts and purging hypocrites from the church, the Holy Spirit’s work was again made clear. What did some men and women do when they saw their champions cut down? They behaved just like their spiritual forefathers did before them. They fled (1 Sam. 17:51).
Some have charged hierarchy. Rev. VanderWal went so far as to characterize the meeting of classis as “hierarchical tyranny.”
I get that the charge is a convenient one to make, and the word itself carries a certain amount of weight. But when you hear the arguments, it becomes clear that the only thing the people making the charge are looking for is for their opinion to come out of your mouth. If their will is not done, then the charge of hierarchy will soon follow.
As appealing as it is to be tossed about by emotion and as appealing as it is to our flesh to throw out rash charges, we should not conduct ourselves in that way.
A church is hierarchical when it insists on the will of man being done, and not the will of God as revealed in his word. For a church to demand (yes, demand) that something be done as that thing accords with God’s will, that is not hierarchy.
It is not hierarchical for a church to demand that officebearers view the Christian school as a demand of the covenant. It is not hierarchical that a Reformed church insists that officebearers hold the creeds as authoritative.
Neither is it hierarchical for a church to do something about the officebearers who refuse. That is not hierarchy. That is obedience to God.
Some are upset that classis declared that the Christian school is a demand of the covenant. Or that classis declared that Lord’s Day 38 speaks of schools when it says schools.
None of this is new.
That has been taught to us for years in preaching and teaching and more preaching and more teaching and even more teaching. (The full sermons and articles can be found here, and here, and here, and here).
Some, shockingly, have said that to say that there are demands in God’s covenant is to say there are conditions in God’s covenant.
This has recently been taught by Stuart Pastine. “Think about this. If there is a ‘must,’ that is a condition. Sword and Shield has labored mightily to prove that ‘must’ is a condition. Now, the classis has created a condition that believer’s must obey to remain in the covenant. All members must fulfill that condition to remain in the covenant community” (Pastine, “New Legalism”).
And there are those who embrace that teaching.
Is that where we are as churches?
To receive a demand from God that you do something is not God introducing conditions. I would say that this is the ABCs of the Reformed faith, but that would be to insult kindergartners.
You don’t obey a demand to get something from God.
You obey a demand from God because you love God.
That’s how simple this is.
Perhaps what was so shocking was that the RPC treated a demand as a demand.
When you spend your entire life in a denomination that calls something a demand but treats it like an option, you experience a shock to your system when a church deals with it correctly and consistently.
Others say that classis was not orderly.
Classis was firm and direct and decisive, and classis was also orderly.
It functioned exactly the way that classis should have functioned.
There were attempts at disorder, as when a delegate (who is no longer in the RPC) approached me twice before the meeting of classis to try and privately discuss matters that were shortly going to appear before classis. The second time I told him that we ought to wait until classis was convened and we could make righteous judgments about whatever it was that came before us.
There has been disorder after the meeting of classis.
As when members who are dissatisfied with the results go from family to family and from town to town—whether physically or electronically—and form groups and spread the bitterness that troubles them and that defiles the congregations (Heb. 12:15). They exhibit behavior that reveals the unrighteousness of their hearts.
But that is not how conviction works. Compare that to the behavior of Neil and Connie Meyer. Hope PRC spiritually abused them for years, but the Meyers never traveled from city to city, either physically or electronically, to try and gain others to their side. In fact, they did not even tell their own children. Instead, they fought courageously and suffered silently. That is the example that we are to follow (1 Pet. 2:20–23).
A man could be discouraged when he considers the folly and weakness that is being exposed in the Reformed Protestant Churches.
God delivered to us the truth of justification by faith alone and the unconditional covenant, and now that he has restored to us the truth of the Christian school as a demand of the covenant, we murmur and complain?
And members would even leave?
To leave the pure preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ because the church teaches and insists upon the truth that the Christian school is a demand of the covenant reveals that you never loved the gospel of Jesus Christ to begin with.
It would have been better for those members had they never left the PRC.
Not only were some men exposed by classis, but the entire denomination was also exposed.
We are not strong.
We are a weak people.
There is nothing about us that is strong.
We prided ourselves on being strong.
We had fought a battle for justification by faith alone!
A false church cut us down!
Behold us in all our strength!
Behold us now as children cast about by every wind of doctrine, and behold us tricked and fooled by the sleight and cunning craftiness of men.
There is something desperately wrong with us.
The cure for which can only be found outside of ourselves.
There is only one hope for the Reformed Protestant Churches.
That hope is not found in any of the men of the denomination, and it is certainly not found in the institution itself. We are the “nothing” spoken of in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession.
The striking thing is that to this point, the RPC has faced only footmen (Jer. 12:5).
And the footmen have wearied us.
If we stumble on these things that have recently come before us, what will we do when the horses come? Or when the Jordan swells?
There is one hope for the Reformed Protestant Churches and one hope alone.
That hope is Jesus Christ.
That hope is his gospel, which has carried us and will continue to carry the true church of Jesus Christ to the end of the world.
May God be merciful to us sinners, and may he strengthen us so that we are no longer children but men and acquit ourselves as such.