Every healthy Spirit filled, God glorifying church must begin with a healthy foundation of sound doctrine that is rightly believed and applied. Dysfunctional churches are ultimately rooted in error and unbelief. The doctrinal standards of the Netherlands Reformed Church (the “Three Forms of Unity”) are excellent and have helped strengthen countless reformed churches over the last 400 years. However, as often happens in confessional churches, there is an unfortunate tendency for a gap to develop between what people say they believe and how those beliefs are understood and applied. In other words, merely signing a doctrinal statement or making a public Confession of Faith does not necessarily mean that those beliefs are fully understood or applied in a way that is consistent with either Scripture or the doctrinal statements.
This is exactly what I believe has happened within the NRC. People grow up within the NRC, make a Confession, sign a statement of belief, etc. and yet have little understanding about the true meaning of those doctrines or how it applies to them personally. Let me give an example of this. From the fall of 2004 to the spring of 2005, a group of about 30 or 35 people attending the Franklin Lakes, NJ Ebenezer Netherlands Reformed Church attended a Confession of Faith class which summarized the basic doctrines of the church. The members of this class were all seeking to join the NRC. At the conclusion of the class, on a particular Sunday in the spring of 2005, about 35 people stood up in front of the entire congregation and, individually, said “Yes” to the Confession of Faith vow. With that one word they became “members” of the NRC (membership is defined in more detail below). That same spring something very ironic happened…something that didn’t seem congruent with the vows that had been taken publicly. That spring the pastor of the Franklin Lakes NRC gave a sermon that I will never forget. He gave a very honest, open disclosure of the spiritual health of the NRC (I respect him for being so transparent). Just prior to his message he had attended the annual NRC minister’s meeting held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Following that meeting he delivered a sermon in which he shared a quote from the Chairman of that conference. With deep concern in his voice he quoted him saying:
“… there are very few Spirit wrought conversions within the NRC today.”1
Do you see the irony in all this? Thirty-five people just joined the church by making a Confession of Faith vow and yet, at the same time, their pastor from the pulpit says “there are very few Spirit wrought conversions within the NRC today.” If there are very few Spirit wrought conversions in the church why then are so many people, making a Confession of Faith vow and joining the church? Further, why is this happening year after year? On what basis are they joining the church? Is this the biblical model of evangelism and church growth outlined in the New Testament? How did the NRC arrive at the point where there are “very few Spirit wrought conversions”?
To answer all of these questions requires a long and detailed explanation. For those who do not have a NRC background trying to understand all of this for the first time can be quite overwhelming. However, all the comments below can be boiled down to one brief summary statement:
The spiritual condition within the NRC today is ultimately rooted an unbiblical form of church membership as expressed in the Public Confession of Faith vow. The vow is a model of church membership that neither Jesus Christ, nor any of the Apostles, ever authorized and it exposes people to great spiritual, eternal danger. Ultimately the vow is rooted in what every other false teaching is rooted in: unbelief.
For the sake of those who do not have a NRC background I think it will be helpful if I give a brief description of the Confession of Faith vow and the role it serves within the denomination. To understand the vow it is necessary to first understand infant baptism and its function within the NRC. The former is built upon the latter. When a child is born to parents of NRC members they are baptized by the pastor and, through this ceremony, literally become members of the church. Infant baptism serves the same function that circumcision did in the Old Testament. It is the means by which a person enters the covenant community. After a child grows up and becomes an adult, the NRC believes that the baptized “member” must make a choice. They are “obligated” to make a choice, to either accept or reject the doctrine of the church that they grew up in. This is where the Confession of Faith vow enters in. Once a year the pastor teaches a Confession of Faith class that gives an overview of the doctrines stated in the confessions. Typically this class meets for several months. At the conclusion of the course each class member appears before the consistory for evaluation (the consistory is the group of elders who lead the church). If the consistory approves, then on a given Sunday, the pastor reads the vow before the congregation and, when their name is called, each candidate stands up and says, “Yes.”
It is critical to understand that when a person makes the Confession of Faith they are not becoming members of the NRC. Rather, they are affirming the membership that they received when they were baptized as an infant. This is very clearly stated in the NRC publication used in the Confession of Faith class. The statement reads:
“Every year it is the custom that a number of young people make public confession in the midst of the congregation. This is not a confirmation of new members, but a confession by those who are already members of the church. The membership of children lies in that of their parents and in their baptism. Those who have become adults cannot remain baptized members. They cannot, in this respect, continue to be considered in their parents. When a person is come to years of discretion, he or she is placed before a choice. The membership by virtue of birth and baptism can either be broken off, or continued by confession. However, when we do the first, we do this against God’s ordinances.” (See Article 28, Belgic Confession of Faith).
Elsewhere the same author adds:
“We who make confession were already brought into the church as children, and we received the sign of the covenant on our forehead. The basis of infant baptism is clearly taught us in the answer to the 74th question of our Heidelberg Catechism. They, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God.”
This Confession of Faith vow is viewed as a solemn vow to the Lord. This is no light matter. This is a vow on the same level as a marriage or ordination vow. When a person makes a public Confession of Faith they are making a promise before God to remain faithful to both the doctrine of the church and the denomination itself for the rest of their life. This vow, according to the NRC, is conditional. A person is released from fulfilling their vow if “error” enters the denomination. However, from personal experience I’ve found that there never seemed to be a legitimate basis for error even though I raised issues that were clearly outside the parameters of Scripture (see below for specific examples). Every time I raised an issue it was either ignored or a whole range of reasons were given to justify it.
The practical implications of this vow are immense. If one makes a public Confession of Faith it means that they can never become a member of another church or denomination for the rest of their life. Even if a stronger, healthier church in your area existed that better fulfilled the spiritual needs of you and your family, it would not matter. In order to fulfill the vow that you made before God you are bound before Him to remain within the NRC fold. Furthermore, a single person desiring to get married either must find another person within the church who also has said the vow or someone outside the church who is also willing to make the vow. If there is no agreement in this area then the relationship must end no matter how compatible the two individuals are. Regarding employment, many NRC members frequently do everything possible to find employment in the vicinity of the church (remember, there are only 26 churches in North America so, depending on what line of work you are in, employment options can be greatly limited). For many NRC members, leaving the denomination is simply unthinkable. To do so, in their estimation, is to commit the sin of perjury which is a horrible sin against God.
What are we to make of all this? How should the public Confession of Faith vow, as it is currently being practiced within the NRC, be interpreted in light of Scripture? After wrestling with this issue for more than two years I’ve come to a number conclusions that I believe are all in full harmony with Scripture. My prayer is that the following may be useful for both those inside and outside of the NRC to discern the will of the Lord for their lives.
- Scripture is very clear that vows, with various conditions, are legitimate. When done correctly a vow is an act of worship and a healthy expression of a God glorifying church. (I use the terms “vow” and “oath” interchangeably.) Arthur W. Pink states that “An oath is a religious and necessary confirmation of things doubtful by calling God to be a Witness of truth and a Revenger of falsehood … That it is a religious confirmation appears from the fact that it is a part of Divine worship, God Himself being invoked therein: in Isaiah 19:8, “swear to the Lord of hosts” is used for the whole of His worship.”4 However, not all oaths are pleasing to God as Matthew 5:33-37 clearly points out. There are valid, biblical limitations to making an oath, some of which are outlined below.
- There is no New Testament vow for church membership. Follow the Berean example in Acts 17:11 and search the Scriptures for yourself to see if there is a vow for church membership. It simply does not exist. The question that naturally arises then, is, “If there is no New Testament vow for church membership, why then does it exist in the NRC?” The need for the vow, according to the NRC, is that it is a necessary response to a person’s baptism as an infant. Throughout church history there are an endless number of examples of godly men and women who practiced infant baptism. Many have been greatly used of the Lord in building His Kingdom here on earth. Although I personally believe in believer’s baptism I deeply respect many within the paedobaptistic community (such as the PCA and OPC) and have no desire to dissuade someone from that viewpoint. 1 Corinthians 8 teaches us that we must extend Christian liberty to others in the Christian community with whom we may not see eye to eye on. The NRC, however, is a completely different situation. Christian liberty does not extend to those who adhere to beliefs that are contrary to orthodox Christian belief. The NRC has taken the doctrine of infant baptism and has pushed it to a dangerous extreme that ultimately undermines the doctrines of sin and regeneration. We are obligated to thoroughly evaluate the NRC in light of Scripture to see if it is the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). What does the Scripture say regarding the NRC’s view of infant baptism and its effect on church membership? Take a few steps back and look at the big picture. 1) There is no New Testament example of infant baptism or that infants were accepted into membership on the basis of baptism. 2) There is no New Testament example of a church membership vow. 3) There is no New Testament basis for a person to become a member of a church who does not show evidence of being regenerate (see point 5 below). The NRC concept of church membership involves a number of dangerous additions that undermine the growth of a biblically defined, God glorifying church. In many ways they are erecting a false standard of sin and spirituality that misleads people regarding what is, and is not, pleasing to God. We must take great care that we be like the wise man who built his “house” upon the “rock”, otherwise our destruction will be complete (Matthew 7:24-27). J.C. Ryle gives wise counsel on this point: “Finally let us settle it in our own minds that no teaching can be thoroughly sound, in which truth is not set forth in the proportion of Christ and the Apostles. Let us beware of any teaching in which the main thing is an incessant exaltation of the Church, the ministry, or the sacraments, while such grand verities as repentance, faith, conversion, holiness, are comparatively left in a subordinate and inferior place. Place such teaching side by side with the teaching of the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles. Count up texts. Make a calculation. Mark how little comparatively is said in the New Testament about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Church, and the ministry; and then judge for yourself what is the proportion of truth.”5 While infant baptism may be the ‘official’ reason for the Confession of Faith vow, other ‘unofficial’ reasons exist that are not derived from any doctrinal statement. After dialoging extensively with one NRC pastor about the vow, he shared one very revealing comment that shed a great deal of light on the issue. One of the reasons why the vow is necessary, he said, is that “People change churches as often as they change clothes.” I fully agree with this pastor that ‘church hopping’ – moving from church to church often for superficial reasons – is a lamentable characteristic of our day. The lack of commitment and devotion to one church body and a fetish for unbiblical elements in a church (coffee bars, entertainment of various sorts, etc.) often drives people from church to church seeking the latest thrill. This must break the heart of all who know and love God’s Word. The purpose of the Confession of Faith vow, according to this pastor, is to help instill a degree of devotion to the NRC church family as well as a measure of spiritual life.6 His heart is certainly in the right place but, unfortunately, his solution can not be supported by Scripture. There is clear biblical evidence for why the Confession of Faith vow is not an adequate or biblical response to a shallow commitment to a church body. The reason why it is not adequate is rooted in the nature of what genuine saving faith is. When true grace is evident in a person’s life their desire for church membership will grow out of a genuine love for God and his Word. In other words, true believers will have a burning desire and hunger to know God, worship Him, hear His Word preached, obey Him, and fellowship with others who have the same passion. When the Holy Spirit is truly at work no vow will be needed to ensure that people remain devoted to one church. They will come in droves. You will be unable to keep people away. Let me illustrate this. When a husband and a wife, a parent and child, or two best friends truly love each other, they will naturally want to spend a large amount of time with each other and will remove obstacles that hinder their fellowship. It will be an endless joy for the two to be with each other and you will never need to create a set of rules to create or sustain the relationship. For example, one would never need to say: “Mother and daughter are required to spend ten hours a week with each other.” “Two best friends must spend one hour a day talking on the phone with each other.” “Each year every adult member of the family must spend their two week vacation with each other.” We naturally bristle at the thought of someone imposing such rules. In fact, it would be offensive as such rules convey the idea that their love is not genuine. Yet, when the church attempts to deal with sin and spiritual growth, tragically, this is the tactic that is often used to deal with these problems. Such methods are not limited to just one denomination. Many have been influenced by this view. For example, some evangelical churches actually state in their church constitutions that in order to be a member of the church all members are required to totally abstain from alcohol. Such rules were far more common 75 or 100 years ago when the Temperance movement was at its height but they still do exist today in some quarters. Their desire is to deal with the sinful effects of alcohol and create a healthy, vibrant church but the reality is that such rules always result in failure. Why? Human rules dealing only with external conduct can never subdue the sinful tendencies of the heart. I don’t doubt for one minute that the NRC wants to create a vibrant, God glorifying church modeled after the one seen in the book of Acts but they are attempting to do so in a way that is contrary to Scripture. There is certainly no disagreement that slothfulness and a lack of commitment in regard to church membership is a grievous sin within the church. However, the NRC’s method of dealing with this sin will never create the faithfulness and loyalty to the church as seen in the book of Acts. Requiring a vow in order to prevent people from “changing churches as often as they change clothes” never really solves the problem because the vow only deals with outward behavior. It never touches the real source of the problem: the evil human heart. The NRC may not realize this but they are doing the exact same thing that many fundamentalist churches did 75 years ago when attempting to deal with the sins associated with alcoholism. All of these outward rules are an expression of a barren, lifeless legalism. Recently I came across one author who gave a very powerful description of what legalism is and then compared that with what truth faith is. His definition includes two parts. The first part is definitely less of a concern within the NRC but the second part, however, is a mirror image of the denomination. This is a lengthy quote but I think it will be very helpful to those who are ensnared by the deceptive and destructive effects of legalism. Since the New Testament does not use the term legalism, I will try to define it in a generally accepted way so that it will be clear that the issue is indeed treated in the New Testament. Legalism has at least two meanings, but both express a single root problem. First, legalism means treating Biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. In other words, legalism is present whenever a person is trying to be ethical in his own strength, that is, without relying on the merciful help of God in Christ. Simply put, moral behavior that is not from faith is legalism (Romans 14:23). The legalist is usually a moral person. In fact, the majority of moral people in the Western world are legalists because of their so-called Judeo-Christian morality, inherited from their forefathers, does not grow out of a humble, contrite reliance on the blood-bought, Spirit wrought, merciful enabling of God. On the contrary, for the legalist, morality serves the same function that immorality does for the antinomian or the progressive – namely, as the expression of self-reliance and self-assertion. The reason some Pharisees tithed and fasted was the same reason some university students take off their clothes and lie around naked in the parks in Munich and Amsterdam. The moral legalist is the elder brother of the immoral prodigal (Luke 15:11-32). They are blood brothers in God’s sight because both reject the mercy of God in Christ as a means to righteousness and use either their morality or immorality as a means of expressing their independence and self-sufficiency and self-determination. And it is clear from the New Testament that both will result in a tragic loss of eternal life, if there is no repentance. So the first meaning of legalism is the terrible mistake of treating Biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to show our moral prowess and earn God’s favor. It is a danger that all of us must guard against every day. The second meaning of legalism is this: the erecting of specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for membership in a local church. This is where unbiblical exclusivism arises. There is no getting around the fact that the universal church does not include everyone, and the local church does not include every Christian. We do exclude people from membership because we believe membership should imply commitment to the lordship of Christ the head of the church (hence, the exclusion of non-Christians), and because local churches understand that lordship in particular and important ways (hence, the exclusion of some Christians with whom we disagree). But exclusion of people from local church membership should never be taken lightly. It is a serious matter. Schools and clubs and societies can set up any human regulations they wish in order to keep certain people out and preserve, by rule, a particular atmosphere. But the church is not man’s institution. It belongs to Christ. He is the head of the body, and He alone should set the entrance requirements. These two uses of the term legalism have a common root. On the one hand, legalism means treating Biblical standards of conduct as regulations to be kept by our own power in order to earn God’s favor. On the other hand, it means erecting specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for local church membership.In the first case, we use our own power to make ourselves moral. In the second case, we use our own power to make the church moral. In the first case, we fail to rely on the power of God for our own sanctification. In the second case, we fail to rely on the power of God for the sanctification of others. Therefore, what unites these two forms of legalism at the root is unbelief – unbelief in regards to ourselves, that it is God who is in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13); and unbelief in relation to others, that God will make His will known and incline them to do it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:15, ‘Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.’ He confidently entrusts the purification of the church to God. Wherever the happy confidence in the sovereign power of God for our own lives and the lives of others grows weak, legalism creeps in. We inevitably try to compensate for the loss of dynamic faith by increased moral resolve and the addition of man-made regulations. But wherever joyful confidence in the power of God is waning, the flesh is waxing. Which means that the morality we had hoped would save ourselves and the regulations we hoped would purify our church fall victim to the massive power of the flesh and become its instruments of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. It seems beyond doubt that God hates legalism as much as He hates alcoholism. And I believe it is a literal understatement that legalism has brought more people to eternal ruin than alcohol has, though the devastations of alcohol are huge. Let us not deceive ourselves by outward appearances. Satan ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). He keeps his deadliest diseases most sanitary. He clothes his captains in religious garments and houses his weapons in temples. Legalism is a more dangerous disease than alcoholism because it doesn’t look like one. Alcoholism makes men fail; legalism helps them succeed in the world. Alcoholism makes men depend on the bottle; legalism makes them self-sufficient, depending on no one. Alcoholism destroys moral resolve; legalism gives it strength. Alcoholics don’t feel welcome in the church; legalists love to hear their morality extolled in church. Therefore, what we need in the church is not front-end regulations to try to keep ourselves pure. We need to preach and pray and believe that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither teetotalism nor social drinking, neither legalism nor alcoholism is of any avail with God, but only a new heart.7
- It is God’s promise to be devoted to his elect, to protect and preserve them to the end, rather than my vow to Him that keeps a person faithful to Him. It is God who works in the life of a true believer so that they remain devoted to Him (Philippians 2:13) and He will bring that person safely into the Kingdom. Salvation is all of God. It is God who preserves his own, not man. This work of God is often referred to as the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” Rev. Daniel writes: “This [doctrine] is especially explicit in John 10:28, where Jesus says, ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.’ The elect are eternally secure in the hands of Christ and the Father. God keeps them safe from Satan (1 John 5:18; John 17:11-12, 15; 2 Thessalonians 3:3; Luke 22:31-32). It is true that the elect slip and fall into sin. But when they do, God catches them when they fall (Deuteronomy 33:27) and makes them stand again (Romans 14:4). Even when the elect let go of God’s hand, God’s hand does not let go of them (Psalm 37:24).8 If this is true of how God saves an individual then nothing further is needed. God’s saving provision is completely sufficient. God’s provision is so glorious and so awesome and so complete that it is unfathomable to think that something additional is necessary. God’s promise to be devoted to me, to protect, preserve and save me is like an endless supply of cold water to a thirsty soul. It is true food for my soul and it fills my heart with peace and joy. In heaven, in eternity, God will be worshiped for endless ages because of His sovereign, omnipotent ability to save and triumph over sin. He always accomplishes his will (Isaiah 43:13); he is never frustrated. Furthermore, He does all of this unaided by any of man’s wisdom and power so that all glory is due to Him alone (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). It is difficult to put into words the thankfulness, gratitude and love in my heart towards God for doing for me what I could never have done for myself. My heart wants to glorify God for being God and I am filled with inexpressible peace and joy. In light of these truths, now consider the NRC Confession of Faith vow. What a contrast! Human nature is so untrustworthy and unpredictable! A church membership vow, with no basis in Scripture, said by weak, vacillating, sinful people to instill devotion to Him is completely unnecessary. In reality, it is an expression of unbelief in the sufficiency of God’s saving work. It grieves me deeply to think that an NRC pastor would say that the Confession of Faith vow is necessary to prevent people from “changing churches as often as they change clothes.” Such thinking completely misses the whole point of the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.”
- A vow expressing devotion to the Lord can only be said by a person who is truly regenerate. Some vows are valid whether a person is a Christian or not. The marriage vow, for example, is a vow before God and your spouse to remain faithful to your spouse for the rest of your life. It does not make any difference whether you are a Christian or not. In God’s eyes a marriage vow is still valid regardless of what you believe. However, the Confession of Faith vow is a vow of devotion to God. Question 2 in the Confession says that you are promising “by the grace of God, to continue steadfastly in the profession of this doctrine and to live and die in accordance therewith.” An unconverted person is simply not able to do this because they do not have the spiritual capacity to express a genuine love and devotion to Him (1 Corinthians 2:14). They may go through the motions and make a vow but God will not accept it because the vow was made out of an evil heart. The reformed doctrine of total depravity teaches that prior to regeneration all of a person’s actions are sinful and only provoke God’s righteous wrath (Genesis 6:5; Luke 6:43-45).
- If a person has a thorough understanding of the doctrines of human depravity and regeneration, and from those doctrines knew themselves to be unconverted, then they will not make a Confession of Faith vow. Seeing multitudes making a Confession of Faith vow even though there are “very few Spirit wrought conversions within the NRC today” leads to just one conclusion: those who make the vow truly do not understand the effects of sin or the nature of true saving faith. If these doctrines were genuinely understood within the NRC and its also true that there are very few conversions within the NRC, then the Confession of Faith vow would vanish overnight. A vow of devotion to the Lord by unconverted people is a contradiction.
- People are being allowed to join the NRC by making the Confession of Faith vow without showing clear signs of being regenerate. This is not my opinion. The NRC leadership has freely acknowledged this fact. Recently I raised this issue with an influential NRC pastor and in a letter to me said: “No, we do not feel that the pastor and/or consistory should examine the young people to see if they have evidences of being in a state of grace.” Why not? He went on to say, “Who is able to examine others?” The above is both a stunning and tragic statement. As long as a person is outwardly moral and states that they believe the doctrine contained in the Confession, they are permitted to make the Confession of Faith vow. According to this pastor, Christians, and especially pastors, are unable to truly know the true condition of someone’s heart and therefore render an accurate judgment. That belief, however, does not agree with their own Belgic Confession. In Article XXIX it says that true believers “may be known by the marks of Christians…” and then goes on to list the marks by which the converted may be known.
- The New Testament is filled with examples of Jesus Christ and the Apostles carefully examining people’s spiritual condition. Let me list a few passages (from the NKJV):
- 2 Corinthians 5:12-13 “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore ‘put away from yourselves the evil person.’” The message is very plain. The Apostle Paul says that it is the responsibility of the church to judge those who profess to be a part of it.
- 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?…” Biblical separation is a very key component of a God glorifying church. The world must be separate from the church. But when the world and the church are not distinguished the testimony of the church is greatly compromised and God’s name is degraded (Exodus 20:7). The key question here is this: If the NRC believes that pastors can not and should not examine people for evidences of true grace how then can they obey the Apostle Paul’s command here to form a separated church? If it is true that we can not or should not test people then Paul is commanding the church to do something that they have no ability to do. Obviously, this is not the case. The Apostle Paul had a very clear picture of what a converted person looked like, and, on the basis of those characteristics commanded the early church to admit or reject people for church membership.
- Revelation 2:2 To the church in Ephesus, Jesus Christ says: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you can not bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them to be liars;” Here one group of professing Christians are testing and evaluating the spiritual condition of another group of professing Christians and Jesus Christ commends them for having the spiritual discernment to distinguish between the two. False believers were removed from church membership or were not allowed to join in the first place.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every evil.” Please note the underlined word. The Scripture says that all things should be tested, which, obviously, includes people desiring church membership. But how far should this testing go? Should it include only outward actions (moral failure, lying, adultery, acceptance of false doctrine, etc.)? Or should the inward condition of the heart also be evaluated? We should go only so far as Scripture goes. He gave a multitude of passages that urges people to examine the inward motives of the heart (among the many passages are the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25, and Matthew 13:1-23).
- 2 Corinthians 13:15 “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you are disqualified.” Here Paul is not saying “Self examination? That’s your responsibility!” Just the opposite was true. Whether in the pulpit or in private conversation Paul understood that he was divinely appointed to make a careful and personal application of the doctrine of regeneration in the lives of others.
- 1 John 4:1-3 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world….” The Apostle John’s command here reflects his prior statement that, tragically, the church is composed of both believers and unbelievers (1 John 2:19) and therefore it is critical that the church be able to distinguish between the two.
- Luke 18:18-30 Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler in which he tested the rich man’s “faith” and revealed his true spiritual condition.
- John 3:1-21 Nicodemus, like the rich young ruler, was tested by Jesus to determine the authenticity of Nicodemus’s spiritual condition and Jesus revealed to him that he was lost.
- Reformed pastors who believed in an experiential understanding of the faith took the utmost care to examine people and make a careful distinction between the converted and the unconverted. Church history is filled with remarkable examples of this. This was one of the chief marks by which an experimental pastor was known. Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, John Owen and many others all wrote and preached extensively on the nature of true grace in the life of a saved person. On the basis of that knowledge they examined candidates for church membership. Let me give a great example of this. The following is a description of how Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) admitted people into the Metropolitan Tabernacle: “In dealing with a person who testified he had come to know the Lord, the elder looked for three marks of true conversion. One, had the person, knowing himself to be a sinner and unable to do anything toward saving himself, gone to God, begging for mercy, and had he entirely trusted his soul to Christ, believing in the saving merit of His death upon the cross? This individual experience of the soul with God was the unalterable and basic necessity, and without it there was no recognition of the person as truly converted. Two, had the person entered into newness of life, experiencing a change of affections, victory over sin, a love for the Word of God, and a desire to win others to Jesus Christ? Three, did he or she possess a basic understanding of the doctrines of grace, recognizing that salvation did not begin with himself or his own will, but with God’s choice and God’s action, and that God, who saved him, would keep him through time and through eternity?”9 Let me give another example from the 1700s. In 1754 a pastor named John Gillies wrote a book called Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival (reprinted by Banner of Truth in 1981) and in this massive volume the author makes a noble effort to describe all of the major revivals in church history since the days of the early church. But before he begins his survey he gives a brief but powerful description of the kind of pastors that God used during these revivals. This is a wonderful description of an experiential pastor. Gillies quotes a man named Mr. Prince who described the ministry of Rev. Gilbert Tennet (1703-1764). Of Rev. Tennet he wrote: “He did not indeed at first come up to my expectation, but afterwards exceeded it. In private conversation with him, I found him to be a man of considerable parts and learning; free, gentle, condescending; and, from his own various experience, reading the most noted writers on experimental divinity, as well as the Scriptures, and conversing with many who had been awakened by his ministry in New Jersey, where he then lived, he seemed to have as deep an acquaintance with the experimental part of religion as any I have conversed with; and his preaching was as searching and rousing as ever I heard. He seemed to have no regard to please the eyes of his hearers with agreeable gesture, nor their ears with delivery, nor their fancy with language; but to aim directly at their hearts and consciences, to lay open the ruinous delusions, show them their numerous, secret, hypocritical shifts in religion, and drive them out of every deceitful refuge wherein they made themselves easy with the form of godliness without the power. And many, who were pleased in a good conceit of themselves before, now found, to their great distress, they were only self-deceived hypocrites. And though, while the discovery was making, some at first raged, as they have owned to me and others, yet in the progress of the discovery many were forced to submit; and then the power of God so broke and humbled them, that they wanted a further and even a thorough discovery; they went to hear him, that the secret corruptions and delusions of their hearts might be more discovered; and the more searching the sermon, the more acceptable it was to their anxious minds. Such were the convictions wrought in many hundreds in this town by Mr. Tennent’s searching ministry; and such was the case of those many scores of several other congregations as well as mine, who came to me and others for direction under them….It was not merely, nor so much, his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation of hell, as his laying open their many vain and secret shifts and refuges, counterfeit resemblances of grace, delusive and damning hopes, their utter impotence, and impending danger of destruction; whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them, and themselves exposed to eternal ruin, unable to help themselves, and in a lost condition. This searching preaching was both the suitable and principal means of their conviction.”10 Carefully note the similarities between Spurgeon and Tennet. Both meticulously examined people to see if they were truly converted. Their searching ministry highlights the very heart of what a true pastor is, particularly a reformed, experimental pastor. These pastors believed that knowing the difference between true and false faith, and helping lost sinners navigate their way between the two, was an integral part of a pastor’s work. Neither Spurgeon or Tennet would, in any way, agree with the current NRC practice of not giving a careful examination of people for evidences of true grace. Thus, the statement “No, we do not feel that the pastor and/or consistory should examine the young people to see if they have evidences of being in a state of grace” would have been completely foreign to them.
- The fact that the Bible teaches that the visible and the invisible church exist along side of each other is not a valid basis for a pastor to conclude that they can not or should not carefully screen candidates for church membership to see if they have evidences of saving faith. It is true that the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30), the parable of the good and bad fish (Matthew 13:47-50), all teach that the invisible church (those genuinely converted) exist along side of the unconverted. Jesus did allow Judas to be counted among the Twelve. The visible church here on earth will always be a combination of both. It is true that it is vain for a pastor to attempt to create a church made of only true believers. Pastors and elders are not omniscient and they are fallible. At the same time it is ALSO true that God calls pastors to form a separate church. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul “commands” the church to separate from every “brother” (those who profess conversion) “who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” 2 John 10 teaches that “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” Several other passages teach the same thing (1 Corinthians 5:11-13; 2 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Timothy 3:5). How is this related to the NRC? The above passages make it quite clear that pastors are called by God to do a careful and personal application of all the doctrines related to salvation in the lives of those who profess conversion. If, after a careful examination, it is found that a person’s heart and outward conduct does not reflect the Bible’s description of a genuine Christian, then they should be excluded from membership. The above passages that speak of the visible church existing along side of the invisible should not be interpreted in isolation from the other passages that teach the importance of separation.
- A careful examination of an individual for evidence of grace as the basis for church membership is not unique to baptist theology. There is an unfortunate tendency within the NRC to dismiss this biblical duty under the notion that it is a product of baptist theology. Since the NRC adheres to paedobaptistic theology they absolve themselves of the responsibility to examine people for membership. However, a careful examination of church history will reveal a number of individuals who both carefully examined people and believed in infant baptism. One example is Joseph Alleine (1634-1668). Rev. Alleine was a Presbyterian pastor who wrote the famous book Alarm to the Unconverted which challenged people to carefully examine the authenticity of their conversion.
- The only basis for church membership in the New Testament is genuine repentance and faith wrought by the Holy Spirit. The New Testament is quite clear on this. However, one can make the NRC Confession of Faith vow, and join the NRC without being evaluated for these characteristics of saving faith. This is an unauthorized addition to the New Testament model for church membership. It creates a false standard of sin and spirituality by which a person’s condition is evaluated. In Acts 11:1-18 when Apostles saw the true faith and repentance wrought by the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles, they acknowledged the authenticity of their conversion and were immediately acknowledged as true believers. Nothing else was needed.
- Any model of church membership, regardless of the denomination, that does not incorporate a personal application of the doctrine of regeneration (resulting in genuine faith and repentance) in the life of an individual as the sole basis for membership is thoroughly demonic. Look at the various denominations today. There are an endless number of avenues by which a person can join a “church” that completely by pass the necessity of a person being born again. There are all sorts of ceremonies, rituals, and vows that allow people to join a church but they are all extremely dangerous because they erect a false standard by which a person’s spiritual condition is evaluated. In the Roman Catholic Church you only need to be baptized to be saved. In the Mormon church you have to swear that you believe that Joseph Smith was the True Prophet and be baptized by immersion. The tragedy is that the Devil often blinds people with such rituals and ceremonies and often leads them to join a “church” and call themselves a “Christian” when, in reality, they are not. The Devil has many tools in his toolbox. If he can not deceive people by one means (presumptive regeneration) he uses another (Confession of Faith vow).
- God will never ask a person to make a vow that contradicts or undermines another portion of Scripture. All such vows are illegitimate. The NRC Confession of Faith vow is not consistent with the doctrines of total depravity and regeneration. Prior to regeneration a person is “dead” in their sins and is without ability to do anything of spiritual value in God’s eyes. All of their actions are useless and can never help reconcile a lost sinner with a holy God. If this is so, why then does the NRC ask unexamined people to make a Confession of Faith vow even though it is uncertain if they are converted? Why are they invited to make the vow even though the evidence of faith and repentance is minimal or non existent? In other words, when it comes to membership in the NRC, what is not found in Scripture plays a more important role than what is found in Scripture. Genuine conversion must precede any vow of devotion to the Lord. Making a vow of devotion prior to conversion is “putting the cart before the horse.” The NRC reverses the biblical model. A vow of devotion (or any other work that is pleasing to God) can only be a result of a heart and mind that have been transformed by the Holy Spirit. If an unconverted person makes such a vow, and thinks they are doing something of value in God’s eyes, the vow is only increasing their self deception leading them further away from God.
- Any spiritual activity thought to be pleasing to God done by an unconverted person is false spirituality. False religion and cults of all sorts are filled with examples of man made acts of devotion that are considered to be pleasing to God. They create new, unbiblical definitions of sin and spirituality. An endless number of examples can be used to illustrate this but I will limit myself to one example because I think it bears an unusual resemblance to the Confession of Faith vow in the NRC. Prior to the Protestant Reformation many monks within the Roman Catholic Church made a vow of devotion to the Lord by vowing to remain celibate for the rest of their lives. They thought that they were doing something of great spiritual value in God’s eyes. However, in God’s eyes and in light of Scripture, the vow of celibacy was completely useless. It is vital to remember that these monks made the vow even though they gave no evidence of being truly converted. As the Reformation advanced many of these monks were converted and over time a major question began to rise in their minds: “Now that we have become true Christians are our vows of celibacy still valid?” Many of them, including Martin Luther, came to the conclusion that their vows were never valid and were in reality, a key component of their self deception. Rather than drawing them to God, the celibacy vow only helped deepen their self-deception and alienation from God. They also concluded that breaking their vow of celibacy was not only not a sin against God but was actually an expression of genuine repentance towards God. When this truth dawned on them they repented of their false spirituality and, some of them, like Luther, got married.
- Any pastor, regardless of denomination, who encourages the existence and practice of false spirituality, is a blind guide. Such pastors are leading people to think that these acts are pleasing to God when in reality they are not. “…if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into the ditch” (Matthew 15:14). I do not doubt the sincerity or the desire of NRC pastors to do good in the lives of their people, but they are deceived. I hate to say that because the pastors that I met were very kind, warm and friendly. Nevertheless, Scripture makes it quite clear that when pastors encourage the practice of false acts of devotion they are deceived and are deceiving others.
- The NRC bears some resemblance to contemporary evangelical churches in how people are admitted into the church. In many ways the NRC and contemporary evangelical churches are worlds apart from each other and hardly seem to resemble each other in any way. However, there is one aspect in which they are very similar. In a typical evangelical church, becoming a member involves not much more than a person making a “decision” for Jesus … raising their hand, walking an aisle, saying a prayer, etc. … and they are in. True conversion, however, is much deeper than that. Genuine faith is a result of a radical inward transformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, some evangelical churches do not understand this point and it can often lead people to believe that they are converted when in reality they are not (presumptive regeneration). The result is that the membership rolls of many evangelical churches in America are being filled with people that have little or no evidence of saving faith. Tragically, the same thing is happening in the NRC but by a different means. Unexamined, and most likely unconverted, people are joining the church by making the Confession of Faith vow. In both cases, the churches are being filled with people who lack true saving faith. Although the outward differences are great, the inward condition of the heart is similar, if not the same as traditional evangelical churches.
- According to their own doctrinal standard, the Belgic Confession, the NRC fulfills the criteria of a false church. Article XXIX of the Confession says “As for the false church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and to her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ.” Regarding membership within the NRC, what is not found in the Scripture (the Confession of Faith vow) plays a greater role in how a person enters the church than what is clearly found in the Scripture (faith and repentance). In his book Warnings to the Churches, J.C. Ryle reiterates this point. The danger, says Ryle, is when people and churches add things to what the Scripture already says. When speaking on Matthew 16:6 (“Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”) he says: “I believe the most powerful champion of the Pharisees … is the man who says that he agrees on all points with you in doctrine. He would not take anything away from those evangelical views that you hold; – he would not have you make any change at all; – all he asks you to do is to add a little more to your belief, in order to make your Christianity perfect. ‘Believe me,’ he says, ‘we do not want you to give up anything. We only want you to hold a few more clear views about the Church and the sacraments. We want you to add to your present opinions a little more about the office of the ministry, and a little more about episcopal authority, and a little more about the Prayer-book, and a little more about the necessity of order and of discipline. – We only want you to add a little more of these things to your system of religion, and you will be quite right.’ But when men speak to you in this way, then it is time to remember what our Lord said, and to ‘take heed and beware.’ This is the leaven of the Pharisees, against which we are to stand upon our guard.”11
- The Devil often drives people to opposite extremes. Think of a pendulum and how it swings back and forth, from one extreme to another. In the spiritual realm the Devil does something very similar to this. Legalism and antinomianism are two dangerous and opposite errors (both are described in greater detail under point 2). In a zeal to avoid the sin of legalism Satan drives people to the opposite extreme of antinomianism. In a similar way, in a zeal to avoid the sin of antinomianism, Satan drives people to the opposite extreme of legalism. Both are equally dangerous as they both will lead to eternal ruin. Only by the grace of God is a person able to avoid the pitfalls of either extreme. The New Testament gives numerous examples of this. On the one hand there are examples of prostitutes, evil rulers, murderers, thieves, and liars. On the other hand there are also deeply religious people like the Pharisees and Sadducees that did not murder, commit adultery, or do other outward acts of evil. How does the Devil use these two? A person who was once a hardened sinner (or even a nominal ‘Christian’) can go to the opposite extreme and suddenly become “religious” with a legalistic, pharisaical religion that can lead them to think that all is now well in their relationship with God. The flip side is also true. A person who may have lived for many years in a strict, legalistic background rebels and goes to the opposite extreme and begins to live a very immoral, sinful life. They now believe that they are “free” and “liberated” from their bondage. In reality, however, both of the above two are led into deeper self-deception and alienation from God.
- There are a number of unintended consequences that result from making the Confession of Faith vow. Specifically, what are those consequences? Without question I think the biggest consequence is that the vow creates a highly homogeneous environment. In other words, an unhealthy “bubble” is created particularly if a member believes that the denomination is a rare expression of the truth. (One NRC member told me once “Our church has the truth, so I have no desire whatever to see what other churches are like.”) A child grows up within the NRC, makes a Confession of Faith, gets married to someone else in the NRC, has children who also grow up within the NRC. The children, more often than not, all attend the same denominational elementary and secondary school. Then their children eventually make the Confession of Faith, etc, etc. The cycle repeats itself generation after generation. One of the negative consequences of the vow is that it creates an environment where NRC churches/members have little or no exposure to the larger non-NRC reformed world and even less understanding of the typical evangelical world. There certainly are superficial contacts with those outside the NRC but this is not what the Apostle Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. In that passage Paul says that the body is made up of many parts and that all of the parts are dependent upon each other. No part is self-sufficient and independent of the others. Verse 21: “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you;’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Here Paul is not talking about superficial exchanges at weddings, funerals, choir concerts, potluck suppers, children’s birthday parties, etc. Rather, he is saying that the churches should be interdependent upon each other by teaching, correcting, rebuking, encouraging, and building each other up. Unfortunately, within the NRC, due to people fulfilling the Confession of Faith vow, there is little practical expression of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. The isolation prevents any meaningful contact or interaction with outside groups that could have a positive spiritual influence of one upon the other. The entire life of the Apostle Paul was a practical expression of the 1 Corinthians 12 passage. He was deeply involved in a whole range of churches including those that were deeply influenced by false teaching (Galatians, 1 Corinthians). Would the Apostle Paul have ever said “Our church has the truth, so I have no desire whatever to see what other churches are like”? Obviously not. A right understanding and application of Scriptural truth will not make one retreat behind a wall of doctrinal truth. Rather, just the opposite will happen. A true knowledge of God and a right application of His Word will give one a burning desire that others will know and experience His truth. Paul was a great example of this. He was deeply burdened for the churches and was in “birthpains” until Christ was formed in them (Galatians 4:19). Finally, from personal experience I found that NRC members had little or no understanding of my evangelical or reformed background. They were very friendly but they had virtually no understanding of where I came from. My background is just as important to understanding who I am as the Dutch reformed background is necessary to understanding an NRC member. My background growing up in an evangelical church and my background for the past 25 years in reformed churches is a huge part in shaping who I am. Do I agree with everything from my background? No. As my understanding of Scripture grew I turned my back on some of the things that I learned as a child and in college. However, I still have many, many friends and family that I love dearly who firmly adhere to evangelical arminian beliefs. Some of my best friends come from this background. I love these people! My heart longs that they also come to know the reformed faith. The sad part is that NRC members had zero ability to even remotely comprehend this part of my world. If I had made the Confession of Faith vow and joined the NRC it would have frequently led to feelings of isolation and loneliness because no one was really able to understand who I am or where I came from. In the late 1800s Rev. James Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and a friend of Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, wrote some very sobering words regarding the danger of sectarian tendencies among denominations: “The more carnal a Christian is, the more sectarian he will be; and the more spiritual he is, the more loving and forbearing and self-renouncing are you sure to find him. And it is with Christian communities as with individual Christians. When the tide is out, you may have noticed, as you rambled among the rocks, little pools with little fishes in them. To the shrimp in such a pool his foot-depth of salt water is all the ocean for the time being. He has no dealings with his neighbor shrimp in the adjacent pool, though it may be only a few inches of sand that divide them…. When the tide is out – when religion is low – the faithful are to be found insulated, here a few and there a few, in the pools of water that stud the beach, having no dealings with their neighbours of the adjoining pools calling them Samaritans, and fancying that their own little communion includes all that are precious in God’s sight. They forget for a time that there is a vast and expansive ocean.”12
1 I do not remember the exact date of this service but this quote can be easily verified by searching the Franklin Lakes NRC audio archives.
2 A. Hoogerland, Making Confession and Then…? (Sioux Center, IA: Netherlands Reformed Book and Publishing Committee, 1984), 9.
3 Ibid, 58.
4 Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Book House, 1950), 104.
5 J.C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1967), 136.
6 Hoogerland’s book Making Confession and Then…? provides a graphic illustration of this. According to the author, an NRC pastor, a whole range of life issues are directly related to one making, or not making, a Confession of Faith vow. Simply look at the chapter headings: Chapter 7 “Confession and Walk”; Chapter 8 “Making Confession and our Clothing”; Chapter 9 “Confession and Apostasy”; Chapter 11 “Making Confession and the Lord’s Day”; Chapter 14 “Making Confession and Disobedience”; Chapter 15 “Making Confession and Marriage”; Chapter 16 “Making Confession and Reading Matter”; Chapter 17 “Making Confession and our Death”.
7 John Piper, Brothers, We are NOT Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2002), 153-156. In the quote above Piper defined legalism as “erecting…specific requirements of conduct beyond the teaching of Scripture and making adherence to them the means by which a person is qualified for membership in a local church.” Let me give a good example of this. Most NRC members do not have a TV in their homes because they view it as an evil, corrupting influence. There have been some instances where NRC elders have required individuals seeking membership to remove their TV from their home in order to join the church.
8 Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism (Dallas: Scholarly Reprints, 1993), Appendix #9, page number not given.
9 Arnold Dallimore, Spurgeon, A New Biography (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 80-81.
10 John Gillies, Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival (reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1981), xi-xii.
11 J.C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches (reprint, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 57.
12 Iain H. Murray, The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 212.