What can we say about our relationship to the "Evangelicals?" As Reformed people we have had, for the last twenty years or so, growing contact with them. And this always brings about two kinds of reaction. One can find recognition but also criticism and distancing. On the one hand, there is an awareness that in many respects we are dealing with fellow combatants in the struggle of faith. On the other hand there is resistance. In the evangelical way of believing we come upon certain elements which raise a number of questions with Reformed confessors, as well as criticism.
It seems useful to examine the historical background of the "Evangelical Movement" in greater depth. What are actually its roots? And what elements have over a length of time become the crucial factors in the evangelical outlook? When we get a clearer view of the background, we should in the process be able to determine our own outlook. Where should recognition and criticism come in from our perspective? Further, what might Reformed people be able to learn from Evangelicals?
Evangelical, what is it?
It is hardly possible to describe in a few words what "Evangelical" actually means. In fact, this concept has received its specific connotations globally only since 1965.1 As far back as the Middle Ages we meet the concept "Evangelical." The well-known forerunner of the Great Reformation, John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century, called upon England to return to the Bible as the one and only guide for existence. His followers called themselves Evangelicals.
Martin Luther rediscovered the gospel (=evangelium) of justification through faith only. As a result of his work as a reformer, churches instituted since 1520 called themselves "evangelisch." Later in history this designation was superseded by the name "Protestants." But in our own century, namely in 1948, the merging "Lutherische" and "Reformierte" churches in Germany assumed the name "Evangelische Kirche." When one mentions "Evangelisch" in Germany, one refers to what we would call "Protestant" or "Reformed" (i.e. "Hervormd").
In eighteenth century Scotland the term "Evangelicals" was used to indicate preachers as, for instance, Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine (approx.1730). They opposed the wishy-washy rationalistic and deistic Christianity of their time, but also the hyper-subjectivism that was emerging. They preached a farreaching gospel of grace, and exhorted their parishioners to come to a personal faith. Also well-known Methodists such as Wesley and Whitefield (approx. 1740) were called "Evangelicals." Those who during the revivals had been converted and born again, were called "Evangelicals" as well.
During the nineteenth century the word "Evangelical" denoted in Europe: positive-orthodox Christian. Evangelical Christians opposed Rationalism and Modernism, and also contended with Roman Catholicism. This was, for instance, also the meaning of the term "Evangelical" in the designation: "Evangelical Alliance," founded in 1846.
The people who participated in this movement had their origin in Pietism or else in the event known as the "réveil." This (Evangelical) movement did not have a confessional, dogmatic and church-like character, but sought to bring people of different traditions together on the basis of a number of fundamental, Scriptural truths.
During the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, America became the first (geographic area) where the "evangelical" trend more and more assumed its own varied Christian features. It was a way of believing and living as a Christian that was found in a wide variety of churches. At present this phenomenon gradually makes its world-wide influence known as a distinct movement within Protestantism.
During the last thirty years the word "evangelical" has for us become a (familiar) concept as well. For the longest time there used to be a constant flow of cultural and ecclesiastical influences from Europe; i.e. from the Old World to the New World, North America. But lately this flow has been reversed: North America brings its influence to bear on us (i.e. Europe), in particular as an "evangelical" influence.
What kind of influence do we have in mind? It is my intent to examine briefly five characteristic strata that constitute the "groundwork" of the Evangelical Movement. Much like the strata that build up in a river delta, the layers we refer to are the sediments of a specific stream of events in church history. In this context I refer first of all to North America, because there the Evangelical Movement has had its most energetic development.2
The oldest "layer" in the early history of the Evangelical Movement is found in the history of the Puritans. The earliest Puritans were those Calvinists who in the period of 1570-1600 appealed for a continuing Reformation. In 1534 the English Church (Anglican) had severed its bonds with Rome. A reformation was in progress. But during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1559-1602) it got stuck somewhere halfway between "Rome" and "Geneva." The English Church did get, however, a Calvinistic confession, The Thirty-nine Articles. Yet much was left to be desired. The Anglican Church remained a national church, without church discipline, as Calvin had advocated and implemented. The structure of the church as institute was Episcopalian; i.e. a hierarchical system of bishops ruling over the church. In many respects, the liturgy was just as ritualistic as that of the Roman Catholic Church with its stately ceremonial vestments, form prayers, as well as the eucharist, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, as the central part of the service.
The Puritans' objective was a continuous reformation. The church ought to become more pure. The Word of God and the preaching should be accorded the central position in the worship service. The liturgy should not be elaborate but uncomplicated, in accordance with the straightforwardness of the New Testament accounts. Further, the people of England should learn to direct their daily lives in accordance with the Word of God.
Both the civil authorities and the bishops kept obstructing the promotion of a continuing reformation, and this resulted in much hostility. Think, for instance, of Oliver Cromwell's time when a civil war broke out. Since 1620 many Puritans sailed across the Atlantic to America in order to build for themselves a new and free existence. A well-known example is the group of people that sailed on the Mayflower to New England and established there the new Plymouth.
Far away from the English rulers and the Anglican Church, the colonists in the New World received an opportunity to practise and establish Puritan ideals in their new cities and villages. Their new Christian commonwealth had to be a "city that is set on a hill." The Christian family was to be the primary site of godliness, of Scripture reading and prayer.
The Puritans put great emphasis on the importance of the Bible. The New England colony was also known as the "Bible-Commonwealth." It was the desire of the Puritans to comply with the Bible in all respects. The Sunday sermon on the Word of God had a central function with regard to one's personal faith and conduct in all spheres of life.
The Puritans did not advocate a national church with a large number of hangers-on and nominal Christians, but a church of true Christians. Hence, they emphasized man's personal choice, man's will, the need for rebirth, faith experience, conversion and a holy walk of life.
North American Puritans could be found among Presbyterian, Congregational, but also in Baptist and Anglican congregations. The significance of this is that the denominations might have different ideas about the institution of the church: with bishops (Anglican), with authoritative major assemblies (Presbyterian), or with a large measure of independence for the local congregation (Congregationalists and Baptists). They also had their differences with a view to child baptism, but as for the rest, they had much in common.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Puritans managed to leave their solid imprint on North American society. Their Calvinistic, as well as their anti-national church views, form a significant part of the historic background of evangelicalism, even to this present day. Briefly, you ought to choose for yourself whether you wish to belong to God and His Church, and you should also have a personal faith experience and practise what you believe (a godly walk).
The "Great Awakening"
Around 1740 both England and North America witnessed the arrival of a great revival movement (the so-called "Great Awakening" as it is known in America). The revival phenomenon was essentially quite a novelty.
The terminology reverted to what the Bible says in Romans 13:11 "And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber..." Also Ephesians 5:14 "This is why it is said: Wake up, O Sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Who are they that should wake up out of their slumber? Unbelievers, perhaps? Of course, they too. But the call for waking up is mainly directed toward Christians. In fact, during the first half of the eighteenth century, the established churches were not exactly flourishing. There was much nominal and routine Christianity.
Besides, "enlightened" thinking with its emphasis on the human being and his reason, gained more and more influence in the eighteenth century. Christian faith had become so watered-down that it was weakened to a mere acceptance of a few "rational" truths combined with a virtuous style of living. What happened, as a consequence, was that a deep awareness of one's own sinful state and an essential knowledge of God's saving grace were largely lacking. The foremost leaders of the great revival movement were the English Methodists with John Wesley and George Whitefield, while in North America we find Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tenent.
They preached their penitential and revival sermons everywhere, to begin with in the churches, but later in the great outdoors. It is reported that Whitefield was able to preach to some 20,000 to 60,000 people at the same time. These sermons made an enormous impression. They concerned themselves always with the very heart of the Gospel: our deep misery and state of condemnation because of our sins, as well as the grace of God and salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ. All this was followed up by an urgent call to repentance and radical rebirth, and a call for a deepening and intensification of one's personal faith. With a view to the dead-orthodoxy found in the superficial, rationalistic sermons of many a preacher, this was once more genuine "evangelistic" preaching.
As a result of "revivalist" preaching, many borderline members of diverse churches, as well as many nominal Christians, were converted or had their faith renewed. This is a characteristic we all should take notice of: the revival's primary objective was (continuing) conversion of Christians. It was quite possible to be called a member of the church, or be known as a Christian, but the point was: how to be one in truth. So here one finds a strong accent on sanctification rather than on justification.
Two particular elements accompanied the revival movement: the inter-church component and the missionary component. First of all then the 'inter-church' component, inasmuch as the revival involved all churches and denominations. Preachers such as Whitefield did, indeed, stress this aspect. The choice of the church was for them of secondary importance. Thus a side-effect of their activities was "ecumenicity." The borders of the church were gradually erased. As was said before, the revival was also "missionary." What the "Great Awakening" had in common with Methodism as a whole, was that it was strongly mission-oriented. For when you have received the grace of Christ Jesus, you wished to share these riches, that treasure, with others as well.
Further, it is important to note that the leaders of the revival had different opinions about the doctrine of predestination. John Wesley opposed it completely. He even called his magazine "The Arminian Magazine." In accordance with Wesley's thinking, the Methodists put much emphasis on the decision of man's will and his ability to make a choice for God. Hence, the image of man was rather optimistic and showed a leaning toward activism.
George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards did not share these ideas and defended the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. It can be seen, then, that right through the middle of Christian revival ran an Arminian as well as a Calvinistic streak.
Thus, it was during the eighteenth century that certain accents were established which even today still identify the "Evangelical" outlook. It is possible to recognize today these differing viewpoints in the contemporary Evangelical Movement.
The Golden Age of Evangelism
The North American church of the nineteenth century has been described as "The Evangelistic Golden Age." During the beginning of this century (1802) the second great revival started to take hold, i.e. "The Second Great Awakening."
This revival had its origin in student circles. Prof. Timothy Dwight at Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut) noticed that there was much insecurity among theological students. This uncertainty was caused by rationalism and emerging Bible criticism. This is the reason he addressed these problems in a series of Bible lectures. He emphasized the authority and the trustworthiness of God's Word. Next, spurred on by a newly gained awareness of the Gospel of grace and redemption, many students made a crucial choice. But the revivals often took place in the frontier areas, on the border regions of recently cultivated lands and "the howling wilderness." There, immigrants from many different countries, waged a hard battle for survival. During the early days many of them had to live without a church and spiritual care. Further, the control of the civil authorities was often minimal. This situation resulted in moral debasement and lawlessness with its attendant drunken binges, fist fights, greed and murders. Travelling revival preachers visited the colonists wherever they could find them, and there they preached repentance and conversion. In huge meetings out in the open (also known as "field preaching"), in camp meetings, thousands of people listened to the Gospel and decided to break with sin and unbelief and to live a new life.
A famous revival preacher was Charles G. Finney. He developed a comprehensive method for leading people to conversion. With him we find a characteristic feature that people were invited to come forward during the meetings to confess their sins and to have a revivalist pray for and with them. Finney also managed to put people under a certain amount of pressure: he talked with them and prayed with them for such a length of time that the sinners, often in tears, finally surrendered to the Lord.
Both in methodology and theology Finney's approach is even more Arminian than Wesley. The conversion of people is often "coerced" by means of argumentation and psychological processes, as well as by virtue of continuous and repetitive prayer and persuasive preaching. Conversion is thus, as it were, extorted from God. In this connection Finney mentions God as "being dependent" on man.
The nineteenth century became also the century of the Holiness Movement. Revivalism accentuated a new walk of life. As a converted Christian you ought to live a holy life. You are able to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit, who endows you with "perfect love" and "complete sanctification." By means of a second blessing, the Spirit fills you to such a degree that you get rid of sin once and for all. To promote holy living, an abundance of organizations were instituted during the course of the nineteenth century: teetotalism, anti-slavery, pro-Sunday-school work, pro-Bible and (Gospel) pamphlet distribution, et cetera. Together with the preaching of conversion on a massive scale, these organizations had an enormous Christianizing influence on America. Christian Evangelical ethics put its imprint on the people. As a result, this became the Evangelical golden age, the period of a Christian America.
One more particular point in the development of nineteenth century evangelical thinking should be mentioned here. Much like in the days of the European Réveil, one can discern a strong increase in "eschatological thinking." A great variety of groups emerge and demand special attention for the fulfilment of prophecies and for the return of the Lord Jesus. During the 19th century we find the development of many pre-millennial and Adventist movements. This was then combined with revivalist methods linked with an anti-rationalistic adherence to the authority of the Bible.
All the way up to the present time, the nineteenth century background has formed an important component of the Evangelical Movement. The nineteenth century brought about a reinforcement of the Arminian element, as well as a significant upsurge of revival and conversion techniques. In addition there was much emphasis on the sanctification of life, a broad spectrum of interchurch organizations in the area of evangelical and social reform, and a strong interest (with its speculative calculations) in the return of Christ.
A fourth historical layer in evangelical thinking was brought into being by the developments during the years 1910-1930. In the course of the nineteenth century the American churches were infiltrated (mainly) by European liberal theology, together with Bible criticism and Darwin's evolution theory. There is an old saying that when hell is turned upside-down, the bottom will feature the stamp "Made in Germany." Among the Christians in America these influences caused divisions. Some of them wanted to accept and assimilate the modern views in their own way. Yet others mobilized themselves to counteract growing liberalism. These "conservatives" could be found in all kinds of churches: among the Reformed, Presbyterians (among others B.B. Warfield), Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists.
In 1910 a broad Evangelical coalition of anti-liberals was established. Through the initiative of a Californian oil magnate, a number of authors were recruited from a variety of churches to write their contributions for a publication which (eventually) appeared in twelve volumes under the title Fundamentals (1910-1915). Three million copies were distributed free; the millionaire absorbing the cost. They contained, in particular, articles that were directed against Bible criticism and the evolution theory.
The authors and propagandists of the "Fundamentals" came from entirely different backgrounds. A considerable number of the "Fundamentalists" had, among others, pre-millennium ideas. But it was only later that this widened the gap between the different groups. For a considerable time many Bible-believing Christians lived on good terms with one another within this "fundamentalistic" coalition. They succeeded in this by holding on to the absolute authority of the Scriptures, from "cover to cover" the infallible Word of God.
This approach, which defended the authority of the Scriptures, remained throughout the twentieth century a force to be reckoned with in the relationship between the Reformed and the Evangelicals. There was mutual recognition and a great degree of agreement with regard to the authority of Holy Scripture. Moreover, there was also a readiness to stand together against the Bible criticism school of thought.
The fifth "stratum" in the early history of the Evangelicals is found in a development that took place after the Second World War. As Christians living in the second half of the twentieth century, we have experienced an enormous rate of secularization3 among the European and North American nations that used to have Christian populations. This is the reason that for Evangelical leaders (i.e. Neo-Evangelicals) since about 1940 the chief front lines are no longer to be found in the area of liberal theology and Darwinism as identified in The Fundamentals. Instead, more than ever before, it is "evangelizing" that has become the number one priority on the agenda of the church.
With all possible means American Evangelicals took great pains working on this assignment. Traditionally they had in their revivals a specific purpose in mind: to reach out to the masses, and to exhort them to be converted. In the years 1920 and 1930 they were among the first to use the radio broadcast as a means for proclaiming the Gospel. This culminated in the Evangelical movement flourishing anew, in conjunction with large developments in the methods and techniques of evangelizing.
Reformed and Evangelical – Recognition and Distance
In our own circles there was lately much talk about evangelical influences. How should we deal with them? Are we to invite evangelical speakers (radio, TV) and books into our homes? Or are we to keep them both at arm's length and should we, perhaps, even go as far as crossing swords with them?
Should we as Reformed people, at the present time, enter into a new alliance with the Evangelicals? Is the situation such that our way of believing is in need of an evangelical supplement and enrichment? Or must we forcefully resist the evangelical vision?
Do not lump everything together
To begin with, while talking about Evangelicals one should always try to make proper distinctions. When we observe them at the international level, we usually speak of a certain type of Christians with a number of joint characteristics. But all kinds of mutual differences do exist as well.
The Dictionary for Christianity in America classifies, for instance, the Evangelicals into seven distinct orientations. In the Netherlands we mainly deal with:
- Confessional Evangelicals
- Charismatic Evangelicals
- Baptist Evangelicals.4
Considering the large mutual differences it is hazardous to refer to 'the Evangelicals' off‑hand, for one cannot lump these groups together. As a case in point, it makes quite a difference whether one makes acquaintance with Rudi van Diemen of the Evangelical congregation 'De Deur' (The Door) in Zwolle, or with Henk Binnendijk of the Evangelical Broadcasting station. Similarly, whether one listens to Jerram Barrs, an orthodox Presbyterian, or to John Arnott, preacher of the 'Toronto Airport Vineyard Church,' and one of the leaders of the 'Toronto Blessing.'
These differences should be kept in mind both in one's appreciation and criticism. Whatever is said among us about 'learning from the Evangelicals' or about 'watching out for evangelical influences' is frequently too indiscriminate. A one-sided reaction is bound to be wide off the mark.
Points of agreement
When Reformed people and Evangelicals meet, we can thankfully record various points of agreement. The most important ones will be mentioned, though only briefly.5 We sincerely subscribe to:
- preaching which boldly proclaims God's grace for poor, wretched sinners;
- emphasizing strongly the necessity for rebirth and radical conversion;
- pleading vigorously for a personal and existential faith;
- accentuating the call of every Christian to live a sanctified life;
- defending with conviction the trustworthiness of God's Word and His Word dominating our lives;
- opposing any Bible criticism and horizontal theology;
- fighting against abandoning Christian norms and values in our society;
- criticizing the state Church (i.e. 'Hervormde Kerk') and nominal Christians.
These are indeed points of great importance. We are happy to note that we see concord here between Reformed and evangelical views. One can sense the joint willingness to bow down before the one and only Lord: Jesus Christ. One can see the power and influence of God's Word and Spirit. He leads people at completely different times and from different countries and in different situations to the same faith and confession. This, certainly, is something to be thankful for.
Points of difference
At the same time, and for the Gospel's sake, we want to express points of difference. We should not neglect to hold up critically any typical Evangelical views and expose them to the light of the Scriptures.
To prevent any misunderstanding, I wish to mention that the criticism I specify is directed toward 'average' and 'moderate' Evangelical notions. The criticism is, therefore, not applicable in all respects to everyone who is said to be Evangelical. Within the Evangelical Movement one can find certain opinions which I shall pass by here, such as charismatic notions, pre-millennial dispensationalism and the future of Israel.
Generally, the evangelical way of thinking features a specific one-sidedness and a contraction of issues, which characteristics, sooner or later, will come home to roost. The following six themes will be briefly discussed:
- the relationship between the individual and the community;
- man's determining will;
- the view of the Church;
- Christianity on two levels;
- the motives of joy and testimony.
The Individual and the Covenant
One of the first points is the relationship between the individual and the community. Putting a strong emphasis on personal faith shows a good disposition of mind. But many Evangelicals are hereby driven into individualism which harmfully affects other dogmatic topics. So much hinges (then) on one's own choice as an individual believer that (putting it concisely) the Biblical teachings about God's sovereign choice as well as His covenant are not done sufficient justice, if at all.
What disappears from view is that our merciful God performs His work among the believers and their children. Further, that He assembles His people of the new dispensation by means of having them congregate as family groups. What happens, too, is that evangelizing is assigned a greater (and thus unscriptural) value than a Christian education.
Infant baptism (sometimes disparagingly called 'suckling baptism' here!) is then denied by many Evangelicals. The choice for baptism is made as an adult believer. This is an understandable reaction over against the practices that take place in the national church. Besides, many Evangelicals perceive child baptism only as (what they call): 'National Church baptism,' an occasion when all kinds of infants are baptized, even though the parents can hardly be called Christians at all. This practice culminates in 'automatism.'
But if strong reaction against this abuse compels us to decide on adult baptism, we will certainly land up on a wrong track, or off the track altogether. For in this case the sovereign grace of God is no longer given its rightful prominence, as something that precedes everything, even our own choices and our beliefs. This sovereign grace of God is the very heart of the gospel, is it not?
Man Exercising his Will
To accentuate the making of a personal choice will quite often shift to an over-accentuation of man who exercises his will. Given this situation, the Biblical doctrine of election does not receive its proper due. Things begin to appear as though God is willing to save us, but that He (in doing so) is ultimately dependent on our choice. This is the Arminian outlook frequently found with Evangelicals, and it puts man on a pedestal. It often receives a typical American optimistic tinge: man is not really that bad, you know. He can accomplish quite a lot, as long as he realizes that he needs Christ. And so it happens that they point out to people (often in a lecturing, preachy way) that they would be much better off to accept Christ as their Saviour.
When man's decision overshadows the merciful choice of God, what happens in the final analysis is that man's happiness overshadows the honour due to God. In this climate we hear (sometimes more than is good for us) about how man was saved, how good he feels, how happy he is, and so forth.
Person and Church
When the emphasis is placed on personal faith, the Scriptural doctrine of the church is put under pressure. In the Evangelical Movement denominationalism rules. This is chiefly an American phenomenon. More so than in America, the church in Europe was there long before people of the last centuries were even born. Century old church buildings are conspicuously present in European town centres or village squares. We did not establish that church, but as a Christian child one was born within that church.
In America, however, the pioneers settled on uncultivated land. There being no church, they established a church themselves. When someone did not understand the language used in the preaching, or did not like the procedures in 'his' church, he simply established another church. This was a form of free enterprise, or perhaps 'freelancing.'
It is clear that these churches did not have any lofty pretensions. So it does not make much difference (as the reasoning then goes) what church you become a member of. What is important is that you feel right at home in a church. If you don't, it's no big deal when you start looking for another.
It is a typical feature of the Evangelical Movement that with reference to the church, it is strongly tinted in an American way. In matters of church choice they do not want to take any position, although they wish to form a movement that permeates all churches. What matters is your personal choice of faith, and what church you land up in is only of secondary importance.
This kind of vision on the church is very much 'in' nowadays. And it has its appeal, of course. But comparing this view to the Scriptural outlook, we can see that the church is thus made into an individualistic concern. Any urgency originating from the call for obedience, with reference to the church, is thus neutralized. And one tends to lose sight of the fact that the proclamation and the pastoral charge of the church are both intimately related to the growth or the crippling of one's personal faith. It must be said that the effect on the church can be beneficial, but also ruinous.
The emphasis on sanctification leads to what is called perfectionism, the idea being that a Christian can attain a substantial degree of holiness and perfection. Eventually, you become the victor and your life is lifted to a higher plane, where sin no longer has a grip on you. Here you share in the perfection of Christ.
On the one hand we hear in this the indispensable sounds of the Scriptural message. If Christ lives in us, our lives become inherently different (Romans 6; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:1 ff.). Lukewarmness in the church is something that is insufferable. But on the other hand insufficient expression is found or heard (among some Evangelicals) about the fact that one continues to be a sinner until one's death, and that one in many respects is still trapped in sin (cf. Romans 7:24 'O wretched man that I am!').
It is good that holiness characterizes one's life, but this holiness is always anchored in Christ, and is always imparted in faith alone. So in this life it is never an inalienable personal possession, but each day again one has to appropriate it through faith in the living Lord. It is at the same time a holiness which is actualized as only a small beginning of the new obedience. The tension between the old and the new man remains until one's final breath.
The perfectionism of Methodism as well as the holiness movement leads to a two-tiered Christianity. No doubt, there are Christians who truly believe, and who faithfully attend church, read their Bibles, and regularly pray. There is no reason to doubt their good intentions. But (according to evangelistic thinking) they have not yet arrived. They have to 'thirst for' something else besides. And this extra consists of a special 'leap' in their lives, by which they are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Once this happens, they will become warmer and more profound Christians. They will feel a huge joy in their lives, and they will more readily give testimony of their faith. Further, they will notice that a certain number of their sins simply drop out of sight. A wonderful spiritual growth is their portion. True, it is a good thing to emphasize that conversion is a radical process. Both in preaching and pastoral activities this is always a central issue. When things are as they should be, it also ought to be the highest priority for our ministers, elders, and educators. There should be no dual-hearted Christianity. And in our own lives no concession should be made to sin, whatsoever.
But the idea of a 'leap' in faith, as found with certain Evangelicals, is not acceptable, especially not when it turns into a system that is imposed on all Christians. Without a doubt, there will be Christians who have experienced a demonstrable and profound conversion and a dramatic renewal of their lives. They will always thank the Lord for this. But God in His grace works in the Christian church much faith, and brings about many conversions in a more gradual manner; for instance, by way of the Christian family and a faithful upbringing. In such cases there will not be something as one single identifiable 'leap.' But what is found here (and it is certainly of no lesser importance) is the working of the Holy Spirit. His work is present throughout all the years.
This should for that matter also occur, over and over again, with the suddenly-converted after their conversion. We are all in need of a continuing conversion. Neither our baptism nor having been converted as a child is a basis on which to stand. We are constantly dependent on God's grace and His Spirit. This working of the Spirit in our lives is not a uniform happening. We should never be tempted to squeeze it into a system, no matter whether this is done from the second, third or whatever kind of 'story.' The way the Spirit works in us remains a mystery. He follows His own unsearchable ways, ways of endless variation.
Therefore, it is un-Biblical to demand from your fellow Christians that they ought to have had some special revelation or experience. It is wrong to see this as something you must wait for and should intensely long for. A 'confirmation of the Spirit' or else a 'sealing with the Spirit' is seen as something extraordinary in addition to what you have received daily, throughout the years, in faith, from the Lord by His Holy Spirit.
And what if someone has known special moments on his way as he walked with God? He should thank the Lord for His mercies. But he should not impose his experience upon others and size them up to measure whether they too have had the same experience(s). Everyone should be left to his own communion with God, to his own ups and downs, his own forward leaps and backward steps.
Two Motives: being glad in the Lord and Witnessing
Still another point is closely connected with the above. In the Evangelical Movement you will always find two characteristics of being a Christian, and these are thrust forward like spear points. They are: joy and witnessing. The genuine Christian should be recognizable because of these two. He should radiate a deeply felt inner joy. And he should regularly approach people and witness to them with the Gospel.
As seen by itself, this is certainly a positive feature. But the question is: what happened to so many other true marks of being a Christian? Is the all-encompassing joy and witnessing as found in the Evangelical vision truly Scriptural?
When I read the Psalms 1 come upon many other emotions besides joy. We find then all sorts of questions, at times almost despairing questions. We hear complaints, and there is also much sadness, much weak faith, but also earnestness, self-examination, expectation, learning and so forth. In other words, the spectrum is much broader than joy alone. Here we find 'narrow-gauge' thinking, because joy receives so much emphasis. Life consists of more than 'praise' alone. Much more in fact. Our church services may show a multicolored character. There is much more to be done than asking ‘do I find joy there'?
Church services must be existential and rich; the word 'joy' is far too puny to cover all this. Neither do our worship services always have to end with a song of praise. This constitutes a harmful constriction, also for our own subjective living in faith.
The second characteristic is: witnessing, evangelizing wherever we go. A sincere Christian has to make converts. "And how many people have you brought to Jesus?" True, there is much that is valid in this question. And it is humiliating for us who sometimes fail to have the courage to spread the good news. Much can be learned from various approaches and methods that have been developed by Evangelicals, in particular for the work of evangelizing.
But again we are confronted here with 'narrow-gauge' thinking, when evangelizing becomes the be-all, end-all in Christian life. We find here an emphasis which we do not encounter in the New Testament in this form. There is a plethora of 'fruits' and 'activities' that find embodiment in a Christian. Just let me mention one example: walking with God and nurturing children in a Christian family setting. This is a normal occurrence with us. When you consult an encyclopedia you will always find under 'Evangelical Movement' the entry 'evangelizing.'
Yet, when you look under 'Reformed' you seldom find anything pertaining to 'family,' and you'll find nothing about serving the Lord in the family unit, nor anything about Reformed education. But to keep things in perspective: during the course of the centuries how much was not accomplished there, in that very setting, in building the church of God and working in His kingdom? That was close to home, nothing extraordinary, but most fruitful nonetheless.
Then there are a number of other manifestations, such as having in our midst outstanding believing scientists and politicians, well-developed charitable work, Christian education, et cetera. All I want to say is this: whoever turns witnessing and evangelizing into the great hallmark of being a genuine Christian, is on the wrong track. According to the Scriptures living with God is much broader than deliberate evangelization.
Are Reformed People on an Evangelical Trip?
For a distinct part of Reformed people the evangelical way of thinking is an attractive one. This is reason enough to reflect on this issue together. What is it that is so attractive in the evangelical way of thinking? Do we have to go on an evangelical trip together? Are we to pray for a renewal?
The evangelical way of believing has its attractions. Why is this so? Four elements will be referred to:
A concentration on this day and age
Evangelical Christians are less connected with the spiritual past of previous generations than Reformed people are. More so than anything else they live in the present. They do not really work with the centuries-old inheritance of the patriarchs, church reformers, confessions, church orders and dogmatics.
Hence, being a Christian becomes easier and more unimpeded. You don't have to lug along a suitcase filled with traditions. All you need is a knapsack. It's that simple, and to modern Christians it is a most attractive feature. It imparts to the Evangelical Movement a fresh and contemporary image.
A concentration on the essentials
With many Evangelical Christians the content of their belief, as well as the message they bring, is less broad than in the Reformed churches. They concentrate on the basic issues of the Bible: i.e. sin, grace, reconciliation, future expectations; and these themes are presented in comprehensive booklets, or pamphlets. This concentration of essentials, brief dogmatics and concise ethics, people find attractive. The modern people of our turbulent world express a need for a 'basic package' of securities, persuasively presented, clearly delineated, and well-organized. This is why the 'evangelical faith' is an attractive option.
A concentration on yourself
Much like on the Pietistic and Methodistic circuit, ample attention is spent in the Evangelical Movement on the individual and his/her experience. This provides a convenient link-up to the worldview since the Enlightenment. Modern people find themselves and their experiences immensely important. And they are eager to experience their faith perceptively and practically. The evangelical mode of believing fills this need, because it is all so very personal. It leaves room for your own choice and your own experience. Here one has the feeling that everything is much less regulated than one would find in a classic Reformed church which still embraces orthodox doctrine, and where one as an individual is incorporated in a family and covenantal structure.
Concentration on the group
With Evangelicals we find a strong emphasis on socializing and working together (as well as working in smaller groups) and in interdenominational and international organizations. This makes room for one's own input, arrangements, variations and modifications.
This, in turn, links up quite well with the motivation of present society. The recipe is: less emphasis on collectivism, regulations and continuity; less institute and office and church order, but more flexibility. Also, there should be adequate room for spontaneity, and the personal in all sorts of styles. Please let's be less formal, we prefer to have an uncomplicated and unrestricted kind of faith. These are the elements that make the evangelical manner of believing and of being a church more attractive for modern people.6
Learning with an Open Mind
Can we and should we learn from Evangelicals? During the last few years this question has been thrust upon us. Sometimes one can witness that certain youngsters (as well as some older ones) have departed and joined an Evangelical congregation. They don't feel at home any longer in the Reformed Church.
Should this not be a warning signal for us? Should we not put much greater emphasis on personal and sincere conversion, and on faith experiences? And as for our own lives, should these not be dominated by joy, witnessing and evangelizing? We must give a judicious, discriminating answer here.
First of all, let us not be timid or obstructive in this matter. There is always something we can learn from what lies beyond Reformed tradition. Our ministers, in preparing their sermons, regularly use, for example, Bible commentaries by non-Reformed authors, and sometimes consult exegetes with a leaning towards Bible criticism. This can be an instructive undertaking, as long as the subject matter is read critically, through the eyes of faith, and is thus discerned and assimilated by the believer.
This means that books by Lutheran, Anglican, or Roman Catholic theologians can be instructive. And in the same manner one can learn from, for example, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and be edified by it. So we should not act as if reading and digesting books from 'the evangelical corner' is already suspect or tainted beforehand.
The more so when it is realized that there are quite a number of Evangelicals with a confessional, Calvinist background. With them we find much that we hold as a common heritage. At times Evangelical authors publish books which, because of their novel approach and captivating style, have powerful readers' appeal. Frequently they do not tell us much that is new, or much we did not already know from Reformed sermons, divinity lessons, articles and books. But the point is that occasionally they have a way of expressing their views in a manner that really hits the mark. We can hear the old, old story come through with renewed vigor. So, is there anything we can learn from the Evangelicals? Unquestionably, provided we can learn Scriptural things from them. Nothing wrong with that.
When an 'Evangelical' book about the grace of God or conversion or living as a Christian tells us things that are Biblically reliable and dependable, accept them calmly and gladly. In this case the Evangelical author is but an instrument for conveying the good message from God Himself.
At the same time we should, of course, not overreact as if within our own Reformed circles suddenly no valuable book can be found about conversion, faith experience and sanctification; or as though all good books about these topics must first be translated. This would then sound as if amongst us J.W. Roosenbrand, I. Oostdijk, C. Trimp, E.A. de Boer, H. Westerink, A.P. Wisse, or D. Mostert had never published anything of value.
Finally, each book or manuscript (no matter by whom) should be tested for accurately conveying the Biblical message. This being the case, it will bring us gain (without becoming gushy about certain authors), a gain for which we can be truly thankful.
Tuning in to Signals
There is still another side to the matter. Evangelicals and Reformed people detracted by evangelical thinking, are often overly critical of the church. They feel that automatism is at work there, that it is not warm and joyful enough, that there is little intense religious feeling. The sermons are dry as dust and lifeless. The church radiates so little to the outside, so they say. For many people being a Christian is merely an external affair. Trying to communicate your faith experiences with your fellow church member is almost out of the question. To be able to do this, you'll have to attend a conference or a revival meeting somewhere out in the country, just to 'tank up' as the vernacular has it. And what occurs in the church is austere and formalistic, with ever so many petty rules and ordinances.
Complaints of this kind should not be sidestepped immediately. Sometimes there is still some carnality and worldliness at work here. Thus it would be useful to treat this sort of criticism with great caution. When called for, expose anything that is conceited, merciless and church-blighting in this fault-finding activity. But I do not wish to deviate from the topic here.7
What we should always do, however, is tune in to these signals. For we cannot cover up whatever is wrong in our own church life, our theologizing, or our walk of life; nor can we gloss over these things with the expedient of criticizing the Evangelical Movement. True, we have criticism, but this in itself should not give our churches and myself licence to tolerate:
- automatism and getting into a rut;
- lukewarmness and indifference;
- a secular lifestyle and hedonism;
- lack of mutual spiritual communication;
- being self-satisfied, while writing-off others;
- lack of devotion;
- dead orthodoxy;
- formalism and falling short of being a productive church;
- rigid conservatism.
'So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!' (1 Cor. 10:12). We ought to be quite unpretentious, and strive the more forcefully to become a living congregation, and to be a Christian both in heart and soul. We should strive to have our faith and love become more profound. We should promote a healthy renewal of ecclesiastical protocol and manners. We should strive for solid, and persuasive sermons that are powerful, existential, cordially admonishing and warmly encouraging. And may there be in our homes a living love for God.
A Continual Critical Position
But this is not the end of the story, for there is indeed a risk involved when we consider 'learning from Evangelicals.' With a specific group of Evangelicals we have quite a bit in common when it comes to the fundamental issues of Christian faith.
But whatever it is that makes a Calvinist or Lutheran or Baptist evangelical, it is always present in typical evangelical accentuations. To put it succinctly: it is found in their one-sided emphasis on personal experience as well as their views on conversion, sanctification, witnessing, and a different way of speaking about faith experience, covenant, sanctification, confessions and the function of the offices.
If the concept of learning from Evangelicals starts to imply in our circles that on the above mentioned points we had better adopt some specific evangelical views, then we should strongly resist these kinds of proposals.
To support this I would like to cite Dr. C. Trimp's verdict in his Klank en weerklank:
a shifting to the tracks of the Evangelical Movement will bring about an alienation from the Reformed tradition.
These words of Trimp hold a forthright warning which we would do well to pay attention to. And talking about Reformed, we do not have in mind only their tradition, but a steadfast conviction that is founded on God's Word.8
Surveying the last fifteen years, we discover that in the developments within the Reformed churches specific lines start running parallel with evangelical thinking, as for instance:
- priority for personal faith experiences;
- a more relaxed church concept, and an accent on inter-church communication;
- reservations about infant baptism;
- a more relaxed view regarding the central position of worship services and preaching;
- a more relaxed view regarding the offices and church order.
These elements are among the spinoffs of present cultural and societal developments. We do not deal here with questions that should not be asked. Moreover, I would prefer to speak about them not merely in negative terms. The questions that were asked compel us to reconsider the old, previous choices and to steer a course piloted by an open Bible. The purpose is then to have old answers rectified with an open mind. This is all for a good cause and worthy of our efforts. Here and there, among us, work is being done in this area. Further, this process will generate an enlivening and revitalization of the Reformed faith.
Yet, in all these developments one discerns a tendency that should serve as a warning signal for us all. Beware that you do not estrange yourself from the Reformed confession and the Reformed church, since you would incur a more severe loss than just losing the distinction of being 'Reformed.' Should this occur, fundamental parts of the sound doctrine of the Gospel of Christ will not receive their proper dues any longer. Would this not be sufficient cause for serious concern?
Praying for a Revival?
During the last few years one could often hear a number of voices in our circles call for the need for a revival. The saying was then: 'I am praying that the Lord will send a revival,' or as someone wrote in a magazine: 'We are in need of a revival.' Is this really the situation? Should we hope for a revival?
Revival is a concept that has been coloured in particular by a Methodistic and Evangelical manner of thinking. Using the term revival (=réveil) we think of a rather unanticipated period of spreading religious awakening.
Such a revival traditionally takes place among languishing Christians and/or a declining church that is no longer vital but is withered and stagnant. During a revival, Christians are moved by the Holy Spirit so that they can cast off their barrenness and their perfunctory Christianity. They are converted from their lukewarmness and worldly living. From now on they will live with renewed élan, combined with a powerful faith and a holy Christian walk of life.
So the question is whether we need a revival. Initially my reaction would be: "Yes, of course, we do. It's Biblical, is it not? '...awake out of sleep' ... 'cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light' (Rom. 13:11 ff.; Eph. 5:14)". But then, within the context, all this hoping, waiting, and praying for a revival becomes incomprehensible. Why should this be? There is no doubt that the power needed for breaking away from sin and embracing a holy living comes from God. So we shall always heartily and intensively pray for this mercy. But as I see it, revival in the Bible is by no means a separate, special, single and exclusive happening that is lying in wait somewhere in the future. Neither is it something you'll have to wait for.
We must not adopt this kind of Pietistic and Methodistic parlance in our Reformed churches, because in doing so we shall overshadow the normal, specific daily renewal of the Christian. Daily renewal will then be overshadowed by some kind of sudden, spectacular, and special working of the Holy Spirit, a Scriptural principle which I find difficult to identify. What happens here, is that we start postponing things to the future, whereas we may not put them off even for one single moment.
A Repeating Revival
Such waiting for something special to happen will divert our attention from that which is absolutely imperative today: daily conversion. It is quite possible that sudden and special and massive-scale conversions take place now and then. But as far as a 'revival' is concerned we really don't have to assume a negative attitude. Just think about what happened in Israel under Josiah, or the sudden conversion of the city of Nineveh.
In church history, too, there have been many blessed revival movements. But a revival should not become some kind of super-happening which, it is felt, we should constantly strive towards. It should not become something that is given an add-on-value above a continuing daily conversion. Nor should it become the criterion for judging a so-called first-class Christian life.
There should be daily revival, not just one single revival event but, as it were, a whole series of revivals. Life ought to be full of revivals. There should be a continual rising out of the grave of sin, a breaking with sin and a walking in newness of life. By virtue of Christ's power our lives may turn into one great revival (cf. Rom. 6; Col. 3).
What about the Alleged Barrenness?
Does this mean that I am closing the door on a needed renewal in our churches? Far from it! What I would like to get across, however, is to warn against the suggestion as though in our churches there is nothing but an accumulation of staleness and tediousness. Revivalists are actually in the habit of taking this negative suggestion along with them in their baggage. In the past there may often have been valid reasons for this: a decrepit national church, a church without discipline, a church serving stones instead of bread.
Who can deny that in our congregations and in our own hearts still dwell many sins and weaknesses? Our church life has its shortcomings; this applies also to living with God in our families. Shortcomings can be found, too, in our interaction, yes, even in preaching and our family visits. A certain spiritual poverty and scantiness can be found among us. But he who uses words such as 'staleness' and 'tediousness' judges most unfairly and uses generalizing, loaded words. The danger exists that this kind of irresponsible usage can rob a lot of normal, faithful Reformed existence of its lustre, or else cripple it with this kind of talk. Could it be that the assessment was done with the standards of 'second-floor Christianity'?
When I hear about this behaviour I quite often miss indications of love, love toward so many brothers and sisters and (also) boys and girls who with great faithfulness daily read the Scriptures and pray to God. They are unable to talk about special experiences or a fixed moment of conversion in their lives. Yet, they serve the Lord in their ordinary daily lives and in their imperfect manner. I know some of them personally and meet them each week again.
Every Sunday they are back in their church pews. These are the people who, at home with an Open Bible and in church while listening to the Word, are expecting their own 'revival’, the vitalizing power of the Spirit of God. This Spirit does not arrive only at special moments, but will be present whenever and as often as the Word is rightly preached. And this Spirit is received by faith, and truly only by faith; thanks to the resurrection and revival9 of our Lord Jesus Christ. God be praised for so much heavenly grace which comes our way without 'showiness'.
Conversion without Delay
Does this mean, then, that we should not pray for a revival?
We certainly should, but then a revival in the sense of Romans 13 and Ephesians 5. It is a revival which begins here and now, in the power of faith worked by the Holy Spirit. Tomorrow this event will be on the agenda again, as well as during all the days of our lives. It is a revival which is, in fact, a conversion, a daily conversion. This revival does not begin with evangelizing, but with getting rid of all that is evil in our own lives. And we should really see this conversion as a specific fact.
Another instance: a large sore spot in our congregations is the derailment of marriages. Then there is that huge evil of excessive TV viewing, with all its attendant problems. Still another evil is the libertine sexual behaviour of certain adolescents. Finally, the issue of Bible reading and praying in our families is in need of deepening and reformation.
Given these circumstances, it is appropriate at times to make a powerful new beginning, much like God's people in the days of Josiah, and Nehemiah, and John the Baptist. The time is overdue to announce in unison: enough is enough! and to start a big cleanup in our lives. Should someone be inclined to call this a revival, so be it. But at the same time it is not any different from a regular conversion. No need to consult merely evangelical authors here. No need to arrange special revival meetings either. Every good sermon lays down, each Sunday again, a solid foundation for revival. And, having received this, we can get busy right away both in our own congregation and in our own lives.
Let us all pray for such conversions, and expect everything from God. But this does not mean that afterwards we just bide our time and grumble and voice our wishes. It is so much better to make a new start this very day, that is to say: in our own lives. Speaking of daily conversion and normal revival, would the Lord God not bless them?