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When Charity Fails

When Charity Fails

by Martyn McGeown


The Heidelberg Catechism in its treatment of the ninth commandment, obedience to which is how we show love (charity) to our neighbor, forbids the “falsifying of our neighbor’s words” or “judging the neighbor rashly and unheard.” Sometimes when we hear or read our neighbor’s words, we jump to conclusions: I know what he or she meant, we declare; and then, if charity does not intervene, we pronounce our rash judgments without hearing what the brother or sister meant. Sometimes, we begin well: we hear our brother or sister out, but then suspicion increases in our minds, which, perhaps, we discuss with like-minded people: “Did you hear what he said? Did you read what he wrote?” Then, bolstered by an echochamber of people who think like us, and neglecting to ask the brother what he meant, we judge our brother rashly. When we reach that point, charity fails. “Charity thinketh no evil” (I Cor. 13:5). How easy for us to think evil!

Zacharias Ursinus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, writes in his commentary: 

Suspiciousness is to understand things, spoken correctly or ambiguously, in the worst light, and to suspect evil things from those that are good; or to entertain suspicions where there is no just cause for so doing; and where there are any proper reasons for suspicions, to indulge in them to too great an extent. It is lawful for us, at times, to have suspicions, unless we wish to be the dupes and fools of others. Hence, the Savior says, "Beware of men." "Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves." (Matt. 10:16, 17.) But it is one thing to have suspicions, and another to indulge in them. Suspicion, now, is the entertaining of an evil or unfavorable opinion of someone, on account of some probable and sufficient cause, whether true or apparent (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism [P&R, Phillipsburg, NJ: repr. 1852], p. 602).

The Koole-Lanning “debate”
On October 1, 2018, the Standard Bearer (SB) published an editorial by Rev Ken Koole with the title, “What Must I Do?” In that editorial one statement especially attracted the criticism of some: “If a man would be saved, there is that which he must do.” Koole was not referring to the doing of good works in obedience to God’s law, or to an act of man’s obedience on which salvation depended, but to the response of the sinner to the call of the gospel: repentance and faith, especially faith. That response, argued Koole from the Scripture and the Reformed confessions, can be called “obedience.” And since faith is an activity of man, Koole referred to the response of faith as something man does: a “doing.” Letters were exchanged in the SB, especially between (the then Rev) Lanning and Rev Koole, objecting to, and defending, that language. In my judgment, at that point, charity had not yet failed between the brothers. The exchanges, while robust, were cordial, as theological discussion in the church ought to be. The men called one another “brother” and “fellow servants” and addressed one another “warmly in Christ.” Finally, in the June 2019 issue of the SB, Lanning and Koole were able to agree on the following points: 

• “You contend,” writes Lanning,“that faith is an activity. To which I say a hearty, Amen.”
• “You further contend that faith, because it is an activity, is a doing. Here, my Amen is much less hearty, because I do not think that calling faith a ‘doing’ distinguishes it clearly enough from ‘working.’ For that reason, I would not describe faith as a ‘doing.’ Nevertheless, I can go along with you here, as long as calling faith a ‘doing’ only means that faith is an activity, but in no way, shape, or form means that faith is a work.” 
• “You contend that the regenerated child of God is able to believe. To which I say a hearty, Amen.”
• “You contend that faith is the necessary means of salvation. To which I say a hearty, Amen.”
• “On all this,” writes Lanning, “we are fully and enthusiastically agreed” (SB, June 2019, p. 396).

While much agreement, even enthusiastic agreement, had been reached, there were still a number of points of disagreement, for Lanning continued to object to Koole’s statement, “If a man would be saved, there is something that he must do.” (Remember that the “doing” refers to faith, not good works, and that Lanning had agreed to “go along with” Koole at that point, although with little enthusiasm).

In the same exchange Lanning also affirmed the call of the gospel: 

• “But now what about the fact that the gospel message includes the call to repent and believe? That call is an imperative verb. That is, that call of the gospel is a command to repent and believe (Canons II, 5). And what about the fact that faith as the response to that gospel command is obedience to the gospel (Rom.10:16; Canons III/IV, 10? The message of the gospel includes a command! And the response of faith to the gospel is obedience” (p. 397, Lanning’s italics). 
• Lanning also reiterated his view of faith, “Faith is the activity of believing. Faith is even an obedience to the call of the gospel. But faith is an activity and an obedience that is entirely unique from all other human activities and obedience” (p. 398, Lanning’s italics).

Lanning also conceded that Koole did not mean what he and others had interpreted him to mean, “You have made it clear in your articles that this is not at all what the editorial meant or intended. The editorial meant that the child of God is called to respond to the gospel by believing in Jesus, and that the Spirit in a man’s heart enables him to do so. A hearty, Amen” (p. 398), adding, however, “But the line of thinking that the editorial actually taught—’If a man would be saved, there is that which he must do,’—goes far beyond that” (p. 398).

While charity prevailed, it was possible not to read ideas into Koole’s words. It was possible to disagree on precise phraseology, while maintaining the same doctrine. In June 2019 Lanning and Koole agreed mostly on the substance of the issue (faith as an activity as a response to the call of the gospel), although Lanning was not altogether comfortable about the wording that Koole chose to use. Where charity prevails, men can disagree and not read meanings into words and phrases that were not intended, peace can be maintained. If words cause unnecessary offense, they can be substituted for less offensive ones. Such things are possible if charity prevails. However, when charity fails, the results are bitter indeed. 

Koole was encouraged by Lanning’s response, and, in turn, reassured Lanning and the readers of the SB: “You should have no fear of that. In no place have I called or labeled our faith a work” (p. 398). Koole then summarized the points of agreement between the two men, brothers, then colleagues in the ministry: “Thus, in sum, we may say that you teach that 1) faith is an activity; 2) faith is obedience to the gospel call; 3) faith is a ‘doing’ (carefully defined); and 4) man actually does believe. It means we have a common basis for discussion” (p. 398). 

So where was the point of disagreement? 

Koole argued that “what we differ over is not the gospel, which is to say, the content of the gospel; rather, what we differ over is the call of the gospel” (p. 398). The statement “If a man would be saved,” explained Koole, agreeing with Lanning, is “not the gospel. But it does have to do with the call of the gospel…To refer to repenting and believing as that which the hearer is called to do, is not unreformed ” (p. 399).

Of course, the gospel is not about man’s doings and achievements: it is the good news about what Christ has done for poor sinners. What, however, is the response to the gospel which God requires of sinners? In that sense, is it proper to require man to do something? Or is man required to do nothing, not even repent and believe? Koole accepted that Lanning did not mean “that it is Jesus who really does the believing for us or in us.” “You would insist that you do not maintain that. We do not doubt that is true” (p. 399). A charitable reading of men’s words means that you take them at their word when they say that they mean or that they do not mean something, unless you have overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Charity is slow to become suspicious of the motives of others.  

The discussion progressed to the Philippian jailor as a case in point. Koole asked Lanning how he would respond to the Philippian jailor who had enquired of Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Lanning’s answer, which Koole deemed inadequate, was “Not this: ‘If a man would be saved, there is that which he must do.’ But this: ‘If a man would be saved, he must have Jesus Christ, the Savior’” (p. 398). 

• Koole did not deny that to be saved we must have the Savior, but he argued that it is not a helpful answer to the jailor or to any other sinner who asks such a question. Koole wrote, “The gospel sets before sinners who Christ Jesus is and what He, through His atoning death, according to the will of a righteous and merciful God, has done for sinners” (p. 400). 
 That gospel, argued Koole, demands a response, which is faith, which Koole describes thus: “It is unique as to its activity, in that it turns away from self and one’s own works and worth, and it is unique as to its object, casting one’s self completely on the work, righteousness, and mercy of God found in Jesus Christ” (p. 400).

So, Koole and Lanning agreed, at least in June 2019, that faith is the activity of man, that faith is the required response to the gospel, that faith is a unique activity because it does not focus on itself but on another, its object, namely Jesus Christ and His righteousness, and that faith is not something that Jesus Christ does for/in man, but something that the Spirit works in elect sinners, so that they believe. Thus, it is a gift of God’s grace.

The Koole-Engelsma Discussion
In the November 15, 2019 issue of the SB another exchange, this time between Koole and Prof Engelsma, was published. It, too, was conducted charitably. Prof Engelsma called for an apology from Koole who had dismissed Herman Hoeksema’s exegesis of Acts 16:31 as “nonsense” in the March 15, 2019 issue of the SB. (Koole was referring to Hoeksema’s statement of “Do Nothing” from a famous sermon preached in 1953). Koole gave that apology: “He deserved better from my pen. My apologies to our readers.” Engelsma also objected to calling faith a “doing.” “Perhaps then, this response to the fear, or accusation, may help to achieve unity among us: to everyone who asks, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ the loud, clear, unembarrassed, urgent answer is ‘repent of your sins and believe on Jesus Christ crucified and risen!’ (with an exclamation point). And this answer is, in fact, the emphatic declaration, ‘Do nothing!’ (with an exclamation point). ‘Do nothing!’ ‘Do absolutely nothing!’ (p. 84, Engelsma’s italics). 

In his response to Engelsma, which again concerns the call of the gospel, Koole wrote that faith is not a work, and that he had never taught that faith is a work:

• “The activity of faith to which the gospel calls us is not to be confused with a work, our working, in any shape or form,” Koole wrote, adding, “Having read the objections and fears of yourself and others, perhaps it is time to cease referring to faith as a ‘doing’ lest it appear we have turned faith into a working. This in the interests of removing this as an issue creating division in our churches and bringing unity again. For my part I am willing to do that” (p. 86). 
• Koole’s conclusion was this: we must insist that faith is the activity of the believer, and the necessary response to the gospel, but we can do that without calling it a doing: “I am convinced that we can do that without referring to faith and believing as a ‘doing.’ But we cannot do that if we deny the calling of the gospel preacher to make it plain to the troubled inquirer that there is a proper, necessary response required of (by) him, namely, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ as the one only ground of and hope for salvation with God” (p. 87).

A Sad Conclusion
Despite these points of agreement, even to the point of allowing faith to be called a “doing” if properly understood (which term Koole a few months later agreed to avoid using for the sake of peace and unity), between Lanning and Koole in June 2019, Lanning began in the magazine of which he is the editor in chief, Sword and Shield, to attack that statement of Koole as false doctrine, even heresy (see Sword and Shield, Sep 1, 2020, p. 8, where these attacks began). Who changed his position? Why did the greetings of “brother, fellow servant, warmly in Christ, etc” change into accusations of false doctrine and heresy? 

The sad conclusion is that charity failed. When charity fails, a jaundiced reading of men’s words prevails. When charity fails, suspicion and bitterness increase. When charity fails, personal attacks proliferate. When charity fails, division and strife multiply. When charity fails, and is even jettisoned under the pretext of defending the truth, the result is misery. It did not have to be this way, and even now charity is calling: choose the way of peace and love, not the way of strife, division, and misery.

Written for the sake of peace.

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