The following article is from DE BAZUIN, Volume 2, Number 38,written by Rev. S. de Marie, translated by T. VanLaar, and isrepublished here with permission from the editors of DE BAZUIN.

“That they all may be one” – John 17:21a

The heritage of the great Reformation:

is everyone reformed?

An appeal to all true believers.

On October 31 it is reformation day again.  A day to look back at the great work of the Lord in the gathering of His people which He started in the 16th century by means of the reformation, and from there continuing His church gathering work. The reformed church that came out of this reformation was allowed by grace to be presented as church of Jesus Christ. Then comes the question: where do we find this church today? Where is that church that Christ liberated from the shackles of covenant desertion and has preserved ever since?

Recognizing the Reformed Church

To be able to answer this question – which is a question of life – you will have to know how you can recognize the Reformed Church as Church of Christ today. You will meet with various distinctives which denominations offer to justify their claims. Some of these are:

  1. Is it a matter of “definition” what you call yourself as church-denomination? When you call yourself Reformed, as so many others, look at the common bond that keeps you together. This concept is followed by the E.O. (Ecumenical Broadcast) in the round of interviews Mr. A. Knevel held with the title “All Reformed”. The line of thinking that the series followed was “may the situation continue where so many church institutions are calling themselves reformed?” Should they not all become one? That would form a strong witness in this world. This is how Rev. A de Snoo answered the question “how can we give account to God for this situation?” at an interview as chairman of the synod of the liberated reformed churches (GKV in the Netherlands).
  2. Does the right to the name “reformed” have anything to do with origin or where you came from as a church institute?  Is there a straight line from the great reformation in which legal documents prove you to be the church of the fathers and therefore can claim title to that name?  This kind of thinking can be found in the Netherlands Reformed Church (the state church – continued in the PKN) and the Restored Reformed Church (seceded from the state church – the HHK).  Some leaders solemnly declare that they have sworn faithfulness to that institute.
  3. Or is the claim to be church of Christ more a matter of “experiencing” your faith with others? Then you have the idea of being Christ’s church just because it is good to be together. Together to share in emotions and so called spiritual experiences, for example, because it gives the feeling of coming together in the name of Christ as pointed out in Mathew 18:20. So we find the chairman of the synod of the PKN (Protestant Church of the Netherlands), Dr. B. Plaisier, speaking to the Pentecostal movement, which has millions of members worldwide, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary; “we are together all members of the body of Christ.
  4. Or, as we hear more often nowadays, do we have to come to that realization that the Church of Christ simply has no address anymore?  We live in a time that you must have a concept of Church, or specifically of true Church, as being a utopia that has no real significance until the last day.  Now believers are to be found everywhere, inside and outside of established church denominations. Together these true believers form the church because they all believe in Christ and so they are bound together. This occurs even though they do not even know each other at all and do not have any real communion.  There is an invisible church of individuals that find their way to the multitude that no one can count.  This is the direction for example of the slogan “the E.O. is more than a radio broadcast.
  5. Or do we have to state that in order to lawfully claim the name “reformed church” there has to be defined “criteria” by which the claim can be tested and whereby others can investigate this claim.  Only this method is according to Reformed scriptural principles.  Article 29 of the Belgic Confession outlines the marks of the true church for this very purpose. Therefore the Three Forms of Unity or the reformed confessions could be presented as criteria for the concept of calling yourself “Reformed”. The confessions themselves are not additional marks, for the Forms of Unity are only a basis because they are in accordance with Holy Scripture. Therefore their function is understood as distinguishing the marks of the true church.  In short “it governs itself according to the pure word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only head” (Article 29, Belgic Confession).

What is reformed?

Now a-days we often see that people easily let themselves be guided by what they see around them when they consider the question of the whereabouts of the true church of Christ. They will probably come to the conclusion that there are believers in all kinds of denominations that call themselves reformed. Also in some churches good sermons are still heard. The great danger is there however that their subjective impression becomes the measuring stick as to whether they feel at home somewhere or not. That impression can depend on many things, the pleasant atmosphere, the number of members, the organ and the singing during the worship service or the tranquility or enthusiasm among the membership. Then they come under the considerations mentioned in 1 to 4 above.  However the important question is not whether we feel at home but where does the Lord call us.  Just for that reason the Lord uses His objective norm, the only lawful measuring stick of His word.  That norm contains the marks on which you can recognize the Church of Christ (Article 29 B.C.) and consequently where the call of Christ commands you to join (Article 28 B.C.).  A reformed church, if it wants to be called such, has to show as church that it is obedient to its Head. That it only wants to be guided by Him in the pure preaching of the word, the pure administration of the sacraments and also church discipline. A truly reformed church will in all things govern itself according to the pure word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it. This has to be evident by what it says and by what it does. Then it will become evident that the reformed confessions, which faithfully summarize the word of God, actually function.  The forms do not act as ornaments or historical documents but have a living function that is both foundational and normative. It is also not Reformed for a local church to remain in a federation that has become unfaithful to the word of God because that local congregation is co-responsible for what happens in that federation (Article 31 C.O.).  It is ultimately a federation where everyone shares the responsibility.

Plethora of Reformed Churches

But how do you look at the multiplicity of reformed church denominations.  You can not deny their existence.  It is something you have to deal with, also as this is a part of the brokenness of this world.

In the course of time people have had various ideas about it.  In the 20th century there was much ado about the opinions of Dr. Abraham Kuyper.  Central in his thinking was the concept of pluralism, or the pluriformity of church institutions. The many different churches all showed some of the essence of the reality of the church as body of Christ, according to him.  In this way, according to Kuyper, the idea that the truth of God is too rich for one church would be justified.

The treasure of salvation in Christ would be too valuable on account of its’ divine character to come to full expression in one human form” (A. Kuyper:  Encyclopedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, Deel II, 2e druk, p. 242).  This appears as beautiful language but we do not find it in scripture. Another idea that is complementary to it is that of the invisible church of which Kuyper was also a fiery defender. We will also have to say that this is not scriptural.

Indeed there are invisible aspects to the church.  We don’t know who the hypocrites are, which are in the church but not of the church, and we don’t know who the elect are who may inhabit the heavenly Jerusalem.  Some of these may still momentarily reside outside of the church.  We cannot oversee the church in its entirety.  Nor can we know how the situation is in all the churches of the world, not in the past let alone in the future.  But these are not the things that define how we should act, they belong to the hidden things of God.  We have to direct our attention to what the Lord has revealed and what is our calling according to His will.  Then we see concrete local churches, each with its own address, where the members come together.  There Christ gathers His church. He calls us there in particular, we are not allowed to stay away from it.

The idea of the invisible church

With the invisible church, where the members are spread out over all kinds of denominations, you may regret that there is no unity. For others there is something attractive about it, as with Kuyper who saw beauty in the great variety in the churches. They all put a different emphasis on the faith.  By one there is a strong emphasis on one thing (for example enthusiasm, or strong social consciousness) and by another a strong development of something else (e.g. doctrine).  It is no longer necessary to measure with a standard of measurement.  There is talk of more or less pure churches, but there is no principle difference, only small graduations.  Others are saddened by the separated existence and push for unity or assimilation.  In both cases they say: “accept one another and work together as much as possible.”

These ways of thinking have grave consequences for the attitude of believers. It is a view that allows members to stay in a denomination that no longer proclaims the true word of God. Here the marks of the true church will be or are already lost, and who will be able to show that there is “still much good” here?  People so easily forget the danger that in exactly such a church they or their children will lose the true faith. The ideas of pluriformity and invisible church will cause the true church to abandon the urgency of its task. Then it no longer understands its task of calling believers, also those in other denominations, to separate themselves from what is not a church or is no longer church. People no longer say “do as we do” but become relativistic, and let the true church gathering work of Christ through the service and labour of men come to failure. They end up without norms and call for the development of one large church, the way of the World Council of Churches.

Maintaining the unity of the reformed church

The scriptures teach something completely different, namely that the Lord gathers where His Word and Spirit have authority. To rule is to have authority, and that consequently means that the Lord wants concrete unity. This means in the first place that it is exactly the true local church that is bound to Christ (Revelations 1-3).  In this way the scriptures teach us the need for a solid church federation, a concrete communion of saints.  No federation, where churches exist beside each other and detached from each other, will remain as churches of the Lord.  On the contrary the Old Testament shows us at the political separation between the two tribes and the ten tribes, what is the God ordained unity of the church (1 Kings 18:31, 2 Chronicles 30:5).  The New Testament teaches that the unity of true believers is a gift from the Lord and is a command for His disciples (Acts 4:32, Ephesians 4:4).  Therefore also our Belgic Confession, which originates from the time of the Reformation, confesses the unity of the visible church. Calvin says of the true church that its unity must be maintained because she is the mother of all the saints (Institutes, Book 4, Chapter 1).  He explains this for the real and visible church (Galatians 4:26).  In Article 28 of the Belgic Confession the church and her members confess that it is the calling of all believers to join “this” assembly at each place where God has placed her. Therefore they have to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the church.  The purpose of this mandate is the safe keeping of the unity in the local church and to serve the upbuilding of the brothers according to the gifts that God has given to all members of the same body.

Calvin’s Institutes IV, 1, paragraph 3, states  “It is as if it was said that the saints, gathered in communion with Christ, would by this definition divide among each other the good things God had bestowed upon them.”  It cannot be said more concretely, the unity that must exist between the local churches of the federation, and also in relationship with churches abroad depends on it.

The norms that are in place for the local church are mentioned in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  Here we confess that the church and its members believe they have to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God which church is the true church.  What is meant here is that the Body of Christ and the communion of the true church must be distinguished from all sects that claim to be church.  Sects or sectarians, are groups and denominations that are not bound to the true church but still claim to be church. The clear language of the Belgic Confession renounces any idea of pluriformity of the church or any idea of an invisible church being spread out over many denominations.

As theologian Prof. Dr. K. Schilder fought for the pure doctrine of the church all his life. The basis of his thinking was obedience to the Lord and to His Word. Concerning the call to join the true church he always pointed to the necessity of covenantal obedience (J.J.C. Dee: K. Schilder, oecumenicus, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1995).  He stated that being unconcerned about remaining in a church federation that wandered away and stayed away from the Word of God was not good.

There is no covenant sealed with an institution but with Christ and God the Father. Unconditional faithfulness is required to the head of the Church, to follow Him and to preserve His pure Word. There is absolutely no requirement to be faithful to unfaithful church office bearers in an unfaithful church (Article 7, Belgic Confession).

Not leaving the Reformed Church

The unity that the Lord gives and asks from His church is a unity in truth.  Also in this respect He requires covenantal obedience from believers. This covenantal obedience also means that you cannot leave the church where the truth of God’s word is preached purely, where the sacraments are properly administered and where discipline is exercised (Article 28 Belgic Confession).  Calvin had to make an important step of faith when he liberated himself from the Roman Catholic Church, a step of covenantal obedience. He defends this act extensively in his writings.  Calvin also warns earnestly and extensively in his Institutes against seceding too easily from the church (Book 4, Chapter 1, paragraph 12-29).  Particularly he attacks the Donatists and Anabaptists who make the holiness of the church a primary mark of the church.  This means that if they think there are any sins or shortcomings in a church it would not be a true church anymore. Calvin shows that these people do not see that sinners, who only live by the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s sacrifice, make up the church.  In the church there are both grain and chaff, wheat and weeds, true believers and hypocrites (Matthew 3:12, 13:25).  These things ultimately do not affect the lawfulness of the church if there is the true preaching, proper use of the sacraments and church discipline.  They are a sign that we all live by grace also in the church that will never be perfect on this earth.

When people leave the church of Christ because of disagreement in the church due to assumed injury of one’s own rights, it shows that there is an improper understanding of the church gathering work of Christ and the mercy of God. Thus they lose the right to call themselves Reformed.

Remaining Reformed

Being reformed is nothing other than that people bind themselves in covenantal obedience to the pure word of God and following Christ as the only Lord of the church in unity of the truth. It follows then that we flee to the Lord with all our sins and encourage others also to go to the Lord, Who is always inclined to forgive.

Let all those who want to remain reformed show that covenantal obedience that the Head of the church requires in His church gathering work by joining or remaining in the true church. Then we join in building up the house of God which is the habitation of the Holy Spirit.  This building is built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, of which Christ is the cornerstone. Then everyone can use the gifts given by the Lord in such a way that the church, as holy temple, is gathered together and grows in Christ her Head to the honour of God the Father (Ephesians 2:20-22, 4:15,16).