In Response to 'What Must I Do?' Editorial in the Standard Bearer
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following letter was sent to the editorial office of the Standard Bearer with the request that they publish it. The editors refused to publish the letter. I publish it here on the RFPA blog as I sent it to them. I believe these issues are of utmost importance for our churches and for the readers of the blog.
Letter to the Standard Bearer about What must I do?
Dear Editors of the Standard Bearer,
I am writing about the most recent editorial, What must I do?, by Rev. Koole (October 1, 2018 Volume 95, Issue 1). I find the editorial deeply disturbing for the connection that it makes with doctrinal dispute in our churches, specifically the editor’s “fear that we tend to underestimate” the truth of irresistible grace, and the editor’s connecting this to the “issues being discussed in the PRC of late, namely, grace and godliness—the life of good works—in the life of the child of God.”
The editor’s reference is to the doctrinal dispute in the Protestant Reformed Churches over sermons preached at Hope Protestant Reformed Church. I take issue with the editor’s characterization of this as “a discussion.” Rather, there were multiple protests and appeals filed, discipline carried out, a man deposed from office, many meetings were held, many decisions were made, some decisions overturned, and the last decision was made by Synod 2018, part of which involved a formula of subscription examination of a preacher. It is hardly “a discussion.” To describe it as such is an affront to all involved.
Further, I take issue with his characterization of the main subject of these disputes as “the life of godliness,” especially that in this dispute there is the potential to “underestimate…what He, the Holy Spirit, is able to make of a man.”
The editorial What must I do? is a case study in missing the point. The editorial perpetuates the same ineffectual and irrelevant arguments that rendered Classis East impotent to settle the doctrinal issue raised by protests at Hope Church. Barrels of ink were spilled arguing that good works are necessary, that good works are the necessary way of life in the covenant of grace, and that the believer can do and does good works. All of those arguments were made because the controversy was inexplicably framed as arising—not with a minister’s erroneous preaching about the way of salvation and consequent compromise of justification by faith alone—but with the protestant’s assumed antinomianism stemming from his supposed denial of the necessity of good works and of the believer’s calling to do good works. That erroneously grounded argument was imposed on his protest, charged against him, used to depose him, repeated ad nauseum, and defended vociferously at the broader assemblies.
The editor perpetuates that assumption and with it that view of the controversy. He does not use the word antinomianism. Instead he refers to those who deny the believer’s ability to do good works with the clear implication that they are in the Protestant Reformed Churches and were part of this controversy. His analysis merely adds to that erroneous view of the controversy because whether or not the Holy Spirit enables the believer to do good works was never a part of the original false charge of antinomianism. But the charge remains the same for the simple reason that if I cannot do good works, I will not, and you may not tell me to either. The editor is simply describing the supposed antinomianism according to one of its perceived doctrinal foundations.
That charge of antinomianism in this dispute has been rejected and with its demise went that erroneous characterization of the source of the controversy and the supposed threat of this controversy to our churches. No one on either side of this issue—not protestants, consistory, classes, or synods—so much as hinted at the idea that it is unnecessary for, not the calling of, or not within the ability of the believer to do good works. No one on either side of this dispute has so much as whispered that the calling to faith and godliness should not be preached. The editor’s unnamed and ill-defined individuals that supposedly believe the false doctrine the editor so vehemently opposes are of the same kind as the unnamed and ill-defined radicals that a previous editorial warned were lurking in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Both are caricatures and figments of the imagination in this controversy. Those same caricatures and figments are not only divisive and cast aspersions on those who stood for the truth, but also effectively confuse the whole issue.
This wrong view of the controversy perpetuated by the editor began at Hope Church and was a false conclusion imposed on a protest and on the whole subsequent controversy. This view was carried on by classes and at synods. This erroneous imposition on the controversy had massive and damaging consequences in our churches. Because of it an officebearer was unjustly deposed from office for doing what Christ called him to do—supervise the preaching—and what he promised to do—refute and contradict all errors that oppose the creeds. Because of that view Classis East in many meetings of that assembly and by its committees was totally unable to solve the issue, unnecessarily complicated and confused the matter, approved false doctrine, and finally codified that erroneous doctrine in a doctrinal statement rejected by our Synod in 2018. Because of it the issue—which was simple and involved the ABC’s of the Christian and Reformed faith—was allowed to fester to the great hurt of a minister, a consistory, protestants, a congregation, a classis, and a denomination. Because of it good names and reputations have been slandered and reproached.
This view of the controversy and the supposed threat that it poses to the churches has been rejected by synod when synod said the protestant was not an antinomian. His objection to the preaching did not arise out of a false view of the place of good works, the necessity of good works, the believer’s calling to do good works, or of the believer’s ability to do good works. The controversy arose out of the correct understanding of justification by faith alone and the unconditional covenant, a correct view of the calling, necessity, and ability of the believer to do good works, and a correct view of the place of good works in the believer’s life. The controversy arose out of a minister’s compromise of these truths by his preaching and a consistory’s persistent defense of that compromise.
The erroneous view of the controversy was rejected by synod when synod said the problem lay in an erroneous teaching about the place and function of good works that compromised the truths of justification and the covenant and when synod overturned decisions of previous synods based on that wrong view of the controversy.
That erroneous analysis of the controversy is patently wrong on the basis of the origin of the issue in Hope church. The controversy originated in a sermon on John 14:6 in which it was declared that Jesus Christ is the way of salvation through the works that he works in us by his Spirit. The same doctrine of that sermon was later discovered in other sermons. That doctrine was properly analyzed and condemned by the Protestant Reformed Synod of 2018. Synod said the erroneous statements compromised the truths of justification by faith alone and the unconditional covenant.
Now the same discredited view of the issue that plagued our churches—a view that created so much confusion and caused so much damage—is trotted out again on the pages of the Standard Bearer. A warning is sounded against the very opposite threat that synod identified. The effect of that is to imply that synod in fact missed a vital part of the issue in its decision. The effect of that is to perpetuate the myth that antinomianism, a form of which the editor describes in his editorial under a different name, was and remains part of the problem, an unsolved problem in the churches.
The issue in this controversy has never been about whether the believer must do, can do, will do, should be called to do, or does good works. But as synod said, the place of those works. Are they fruits of faith or do works along with faith obtain? Is fellowship with the Father by faith and by the good works that faith produces? Is salvation by faith and by the works of faith? The editor is speaking to the choir—all of whom arise and say amen—when he fulsomely describes the work of the Spirit to work in us both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure. But the whole article misses the point when it tries to connect this with the controversy in our churches and the editor sounds a false alarm when he warns about a threat to the doctrine of the calling and ability of believers to do good works.
The issue in this controversy has been whether the Spirit’s working in us both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure is part of the way to the Father that Jesus speaks about in John 14:6. That those works that the Spirit works in us are part of the way to the Father is the erroneous doctrine that was preached about that text and that was found in other sermons. This synod condemned.
To say that the way to the Father is not by works—especially not by the works that Jesus works in me by his Spirit—is not an incipient antinomianism. To insist that works that the Spirit works in believers are not part of the way to the Father, vigorously to deny that works are part of that way, and strenuously to oppose the corruption of that teaching does not imply any weakening of commitment to or “underestimation” of the doctrine of the necessity, ability, or calling of the believer to do good works. Synod’s decision was defense of the gospel. The gospel synod defended is justification by faith alone which doctrine alone makes possible the proper teaching of the place of good works, because we received the Spirit—who works so mightily in believers—by the hearing of faith, and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).
The editor’s efforts to frame the controversy as involving a threat to the doctrine that the Spirit works in us the ability to do good works, that there is calling to do good works, and that good works are necessary, however, begs for questions. Why does the editor of the Standard Bearer bring up again this debunked analysis of the doctrinal controversy that has so troubled us? To what purpose is this straw man set up again? Why is that view now raised again as though it had anything at all to do with the controversy that has bothered us? The issue is about synod’s defense of justification by faith alone—which is not by works. So why does the editor want to make the issue about the calling and ability of the believer to do good works? Immediately after the stunning victory that defended the truth of justification by faith alone, why is there this “fear” that we “underestimate” what the Spirit makes of a man? In the matter of justification there is no calling, necessity, or ability of the believer to do good works. To insist on that is not a cause for “fear” that what the Spirit makes of man will be “underestimated.” The believer damns all his works because he believes that God is a God who justifies the ungodly and that his works can only be the ground for his condemnation if he brings them to the tribunal of God. So in a controversy where justification is compromised why the insistence on the ability to do good works? After a decision in which justification was defended, why raise the fear that we underestimate the calling to do works?
Cordially in Christ,
Rev. Nathan J. Langerak
This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.