The Reformation and the Reformed Church

Given on the Anniversary of the Reformation in Amsterdam, Sunday evening, November 3rd, 1878, in the New Church, Amsterdam

By P. J. Hoedemaker

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4–5, NASB).

Since May 27 of this year [the 300th anniversary of the conversion of the city of Amsterdam to the Reformed worship], we have read with yet more interest than before the well-known inscription which since the Reformation has hung above the gate to the choir loft in the Old Church:

“The abuse which was gradually introduced into God’s church
Was here removed in the year 1578"

These words drew our attention time and time again. Since the 300th anniversary of the establishment of our congregation, it is as if they have gained in significance for us. We now know what it meant to remove this “abuse,” and we know the path and the means by which this goal was achieved.

Nevertheless, our commemoration on May 27th and 29th had more to do with the external course of the Reformation, and then only exclusively here in the city. In the nature of the case, therefore, the other two lines of this rhyme did not come directly to mind. You will find them on the other side of the gate, inside the choir loft.

They read as follows:

“To keep God’s service and knowledge pure,
From now on we need to build on God's Word, 
not human institution"

That they concern the great happening that we festively commemorated late last spring, is clear enough.

Allow me on this annual day of remembrance of the Reformation, however, to make clear that these words, in accordance with the desires of our fathers, mean to give us insight into what they considered to be the actual work, the essence of the Reformation.

Apparently it was not their primary concern to demand any additional liberty for themselves, to get rid of statues and confessionals, to remove altars and ornaments of the Mass, in a word, to abolish “abuses.” They desired to honor God’s Word, and consequently to restore the ministry of the Word and the sacraments according to the ordinances of the Lord, in His Church.

This explains the positive result that crowned the efforts of the men of 1578.

After all, they were not the first to have demanded a reform. Before them, humanists and philosophers, men of piety and nobility, princes and peoples had protested against all kinds of errors and abuses whereby Rome had deviated from the original simplicity and purity of faith.

None of this was able to effect any change for the better.

And yet Jan Arentz and Peter Gabriel, and before them Luther in Germany and Calvin in Geneva, certainly did not fight superstition with more talent and greater vehemence than the humanists did – Erasmus first and foremost! And such men as Arnold of Brescia and Savonarola, Frederick I and Henry IV were more irreconcilable in their enmity against Rome and better equipped with “fleshly weapons” than the confessors who belonged to the “churches under the cross,” with their pastors and spokesmen.

The enthusiasm, decisiveness, and persistence with which ours demanded “a reform of the church in both head and members” was not any greater than was experienced at the reforming councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basle.

And yet, nothing could be done against Rome until one got around to attacking its basic error. The councils, doctors, national leaders and crowned heads who felt the need for a reform and tried to satisfy it, each in his own way, at least in some respects, were like the engineer who intends to dam a stream without taking into account the source that feeds it; like the head of an army who has occupied the outworks of a fortress without bombarding the enemy in the citadel which controls the whole fortress; like a physician who combats the symptoms of a persistent disease, not its cause.

Only when people combatted what was questionable in Rome, not from a doctrinal or literary, national or political, or even from a moral point of view, but everything that might be called a revelation of its fundamental error, the elevation of the creature above the Creator, did Rome’s inner weakness become revealed; only then was she to yield to the weapons that were “mighty through God,” to overthrow every bulwark of error and take captive the thoughts of human wisdom in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church; only then did they succeed in “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,” so that from now on they would voluntarily submit to Him.

In its essence, the Reformation was a protest against idolatry even in its most refined form.

It rejected all creature worship:

  • In Marian devotions, by which a grace-endowed sinner is honored as queen of heaven;
  • In prayers to the saints, by which the redeemed are put in the place of the Redeemer;
  • In the priesthood, which was able to interpose itself between Christ and His congregation, dearly bought by Him;
  • In art, which fostered the religion of imagery to the detriment of God’s work in the soul;
  • In sacred relics, material objects to which supernatural powers were attributed;
  • In the monasteries, in which the art was practiced of rendering the flesh pious;
  • In the sacrifice of the Mass, which was nothing more than a denial of the only sacrifice of Christ, and thus at bottom “an accursed idolatry” [Heidelberg Catechism, q. 80].

We hear nothing of a second principle of the Reformation, the one that theologians call the material, which would come to stand alongside the so-called formal principle. The formal principle demands complete subordination to the Word of God, for it is concerned with the honor of God. It resists the presumption of the creature. That is precisely why it demanded a place of honor for the Word of God. This is its principle: the one thing it has always honored. Or, if one wishes to follow the tradition of the schools and continue to speak of a formal and material principle, one must testify: the two principles coincide here. Both presuppose the true “knowledge of God,” to which the “thoughts” of men were opposed.

God Himself, by means of His Word, had wrought that “knowledge” in the hearts of the Reformers.

Self-knowledge is inseparable from that knowledge. As Calvin so truly put it in the beginning of his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves…. Our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us … that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness…. On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also – He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.

From this “knowledge,” then, was born the aversion to all idolatry, in whatever form, among the Reformers; from it arose the conviction in them that man has no cause of boasting before his God; from this knowledge must be explained their rejection of all self-righteousness, their fear of every self-made religion; from this arose the suspicion with which they dealt with all human pronouncements, under whatever title, which are not based on the Word of God.

The Reformation was about preserving and spreading “that knowledge.” Hence it unsettled “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” in the Church of Rome – but only in order to lead “every thought captive to the obedience” of the supreme authority, the authority above that of the church, of the civil government, of science; the authority laid down in the living Word, the Word in which Christ had spoken, spoke, and would continue to speak until the end of the ages.

We speak here of the Reformation in general, and for the moment make no distinction between the Reformed and the Lutheran Reformation.

Calvin wrote the following words to Cardinal Sadolet: “What has a Christian man to do with that prevaricating obedience, which, while the word of God is licentiously contemned, yields its homage to human vanity? Ours be the humility, which, beginning with the lowest, and paying respect to each in his degree, yields the highest honor and respect to the Church, in subordination, however, to Christ the Church’s head; ours the obedience, which, while it disposes us to listen to our elders and superiors, tests all obedience by the word of God.”[1]

And Luther sings at the stake of our first martyrs in the Netherlands, Hendrik Voes and Jan van Essen, burned in Brussels in 1523:

“We will thank the Lord God:
His Word has returned.”[2]

What he meant by this is shown in part by another verse of this hymn, in which he says,

“Their greatest error was:
We must build on God alone;
Man deceives at every turn,
He cannot be trusted!”

The Reformers bowed before the Word of God precisely because they were concerned above all with God’s honor.

The entire activity of the Reformation can be reduced to this one principle.

It liberated “conscience” – when it recognized God as the only Lawgiver, Master, and King; “maintained the rights of man” – over against the creature, because, and to the degree that, they were understood in terms of duties to God; “freed us from error” – by bringing us the Truth; “denied the binding authority of forms” – because, and to the degree that, the agreement was broken that must hold between the form and the essence of religion.

Yet when we directed your attention to what can be read in the choir loft here in the Old Church:

“To keep God’s ministry and knowledge pure,
From now on we need to build on God’s Word and not human institution,”

it was our purpose to demonstrate to you that in these words, our fathers expressed not only the very essence of the Reformation in general but also the defining characteristic of the Reformation among us.

Do we have the right to make this distinction?

If we emphasize the event by which on October 31st of the year of our Lord, 1517, Luther gave the great impetus to that world-historical movement the results of which are found in our churches and nations – certainly not.

If, on the other hand, we consider October 31st only as the day on which, with the tacit approval of all, we are to discuss the Reformation itself in terms of its origin, its activity, its influence, according to the peculiar standpoint that we take, and may regard Luther’s theses and his action as a Reformer as a particular manifestation of the principle embodied in that Reformation – most certainly.

In our view it is not inappropriate that we who belong to the Reformed church consider the 31st October to be the anniversary of the Reformation.

We well know that Luther was not the only Reformer; it is not unknown to us that the gospel was preached in its purity even before the appearance of Luther, in France among others by Le Févre d’Etaples, in Switzerland by Zwingli in Einsiedlen, etc.; it is even superfluous to recall that the Reformation in our countries was not a mere import from Germany, but that “the people of the Augsburg Confession” were sharply distinguished from ours from the outset; nevertheless, it remains true that, according to the counsel of God, Luther did the most, in word and deed, to promote the breakthrough of the Reformation.

But this does not mean that it found its fullest expression in the protest against the trade in indulgences and works salvation in Rome, the most complete expression of which was found in the theses that Luther posted on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg.

Far be it from us lightly to esteem what the Lutheran and the Reformed Reformation had in common. More attention was always drawn to this from our side than from theirs.

Calvin signed the Augsburg Confession.

In the living rooms of our citizenry we find the picture of Luther and Melanchthon next to that of Calvin and Zwingli. Is this not a tacit acknowledgement that the collective Reformers, according to the counsel of God, have accomplished the great work of the Reformation, each in his own way, one more, the other less completely?

There is where these men are united. What God has joined together let no man separate!

Yet we may accept that the choice of October 31st as the anniversary of the Reformation can be entirely justified from the historical point of view, because of the Biblical principle which Luther defended in his theses, and with an appeal to what was common in the work of the Reformers – and at the same time be of the opinion that the principle of the Reformation was grasped more deeply in the Reformed church than in the Lutheran; worked more powerfully in the former than in the latter; that the work of the Reformation, initiated by Luther, was independently started, consistently implemented, and decisively effected by Calvin.

This, therefore, is our settled conviction.

After having given this explanation, we may even take a further step.

From our point of view, the celebration of the 31st of October is, in terms of the meaning attributed to it, not entirely benign.

At the level to which Luther brought the Reformation, it finds sympathy, even acclaim among all who value the name of Protestant, of Reformed. But it remains to be seen whether we would succeed in obtaining the same agreement for Calvin, for the Reformed church, as such.

What explains this phenomenon?

The history of the 18th century gives us the answer.

Did the Revolution not inundate our society, our theological thinking, our ecclesiastical life as a true deluge?

Were not the boundaries between “the various churches of our Lord Jesus Christ” so obliterated by this, to the delight of all that was conservative and called itself orthodox, that it seemed a superfluous effort to seek a new boundary?

Was the Union not actually established in Germany between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches? Did it not apparently provide the ideal for the Dutch Reformed church to Willem I and the men of 1816? Was it not prepared for and established in the name of our church, which suddenly became known as “Hervormd,”[3] a name which, linguistically, must be regarded as having the same original meaning as the earlier one, but is not associated with the same memories? But what am I saying; as if it only concerned the Union between the Reformed and the Lutheran churches, a Union which Calvin did not cease to desire; a union between two churches which have never been so sharply opposed to each other here in this country as was the case across our borders!

It was about something else. It was to destroy the effects of the struggle against the Remonstrants. The desire was to erase the line of demarcation between the confession of the church and the element it had expelled. The desire was to deny that the work of the Synod of Dort was a continuation of that of the Reformation; that the great principle by which “the abuse in God’s Church” was “removed” in 1578, also led to the rejection of Arminianism; that the honor of God was involved in this matter as well. A denial that, consciously or unconsciously, is the basis of the demand that we seek the main principle of our church in the mere denial of present-day naturalism.

Much, very much has changed of late. The revival which came to us by strange destiny, has given us new life. God in His mercy used it to restore the hearts of the children to the fathers, at least in some measure. Praise be to His name! Another orthodoxy has taken the place of the former, an orthodoxy which can bear this name more properly.

The Christ of God is no longer held to be the founder of a religion and a teacher of morality, but the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

The words, “new birth,” the “blood of Jesus Christ,” “grace,” “eternal perdition,” are heard again from our pulpits.

One even dares, albeit with some diffidence, to speak of predestination. Everything has gradually become more delimited and decided. Our own spokesmen, whose most cautious statements 20 or 30 years ago exposed them to ridicule and harsh judgment as ultra-orthodox, have gradually – even though they themselves have not changed – become too general and insufficiently positive for us.

But despite all this, the aversion to what is peculiar to the Reformed church has continued, even in the circles where people maintain “the Apostolic Gospel,” are “positively Christian,” and accept “the essence of the confession” in the orthodox sense of this formula. Yes, it has even occurred that men who claim to be as good Reformed as anybody do not wish to use that name because they regard it as a party slogan.

For us, what is peculiar to the Reformed church, and consequently the name by which it is indicated, is not without significance, and you will excuse me when, contrary to my custom, I on this day and in this connection bring up a dispute that exists among men who are supposed to want “essentially” the same thing.

Why deny our origin, our family name? The answer is obvious to me. One seeks after what is characteristically Reformed in a doctrine or a system of doctrine, and consequently finds himself of the opinion that he will be able to separate the “Christian” character of the church from what is peculiar to the “denomination”; that by this, he will be able to maintain “the essence” of confession, of theology – as something that is broader, more Biblical, more consistent with the demands of the time.

Precisely here lies the deviation, the misconception of the Reformed principle.

Our fathers always spoke of “Christian doctrine,” “the Christian church,” “the Christian religion,” not as something in addition to or above what they professed, but as that which found the proper, Scriptural expression in their “Reformed church” and “Confession.”

The name “Reformed” does not serve to denote a denomination in contrast to other similar associations, but to indicate the church itself after the Reformation. There would not have been a REformed church if there had not been a DEformed church. Our fathers were concerned precisely with maintaining the catholicity of the church.

For us, the Reformed principle is the same thing as the essence of the Reformation.

It is a principle the influence of which is felt not only in theology but in heart and home, in church and school, in state and society, in the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the preaching of the gospel, in a word, everywhere.

Let us penetrate a little deeper into the essence of the Reformation and to that end show what Luther and Calvin had in common, and wherein they differed.

Both maintained the authority of God’s Word against the presumption of the church, the authority of tradition, the inward light of the fanatics, and the complacency of human reason.

“If I am not convinced,” says Luther, “by testimonies of Holy Scripture or by other clear and transparent grounds and evidences, then I am overcome by the Scripture verses which I have given and my conscience is caught in the words of God.”

And Calvin?

“Let us hold fast to the Word. It is our only guideline, the school of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing lacking in it of what we need for salvation, and nothing is taught therein that is not useful and necessary to us. Therefore we must not suppress one jot or tittle of it, and close our mouths as soon as we hear the mouth of God speak, whatever difficulties it may cause to arise for us.”

Both used the Word of God as, and considered it to be, the sword of the Spirit upon which they wished to rely in the struggle against Rome.

“I want to preach it,” says Luther, “write it down, proclaim it, but I have no interest in forcing anyone. Faith cannot be imposed. Take an example from me. I have opposed the pope, indulgences, and the whole army of papists, but not by force … I have sat still and let God’s Word do the work. ”

And Calvin?

“Why,” he calls to his fellow believers, “burn statues and smash crosses? … What! gain freedom through rebellion! It must be sought in a completely different way. Let God speak in His Word! Better to lose everything than to achieve victory by such means! The honor of God must be more precious to us than life.”

But along with this agreement there was a no less important difference between the two Reformers, even in their appreciation of Holy Scripture.

Luther’s life question was: how do I become justified before God?

He found the answer to that question in Holy Scripture. His frightened soul was comforted by that answer. He couldn’t let it be wrangled or twisted. But that answer also remained the essence of the Scriptures, the summary of its content, the standard by which all the teachings of men, but even Holy Scripture as well, were to be judged.

“You must,” he says, “judge rightly among all the books (of the Bible) and discern which are the best. The Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul, especially to the Romans, as well as the first epistle of Peter, are certainly the true heart and the marrow of your books, which should therefore also be the first; so that it would be advisable for every Christian to read them first and foremost, and to familiarize himself with them by daily reading as with one’s daily bread. Thus John’s Gospel is the only right one, far preferable to and prominent above the other three. Likewise, the letters of Paul and Peter are preferable to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Summa: John’s Gospel and first letter, the letters of Paul, especially to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, as well as the first letter of Peter, these are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that you need to know and to be blessed by, even if you never were to hear or see another book or doctrine. It is also the right touchstone to test all the books as to whether they praise Christ or not. ”

What a difference with Calvin.

He is primarily concerned with God, not with the creature, not with man, not even – let this not be misunderstood – with his own salvation. For him, the honor of God is above all; and it is precisely in the glorification of the Lord that he considers salvation to reside.

Consult his catechism. The very first question goes like this: What is the chief end of human life? To know God by whom men were created.

He asks further: What reason have you for saying so? Because he created us and placed us in this world to be glorified in us.

The entire Reformed view of life is stamped by this principle.

And with this we return to our point of departure.

Luther’s theses contain the Reformation’s protest against works salvation. Calvin understood this protest more deeply, not from man, but from God. His whole doctrinal concept was in direct conflict with any system which left any room at all for what we have characterized as creature-worship.

Precisely for this reason, they were concerned to destroy “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and [take] every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

God’s Word was to rule in every sphere of life. To him it was not the letter of revelation but the living Word of the great King, the Urim and Thummim of the church, explicated and applied by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the faithful.

“Here is the principle by which our religion differs from all others, to wit, that God has spoken to us, and that we are assured that the prophets, organs of the Holy Spirit, proclaimed only what they had received from above. When we read the Holy Scriptures, it is as if we are hearing God Himself speaking to us. If faith, be it ever so little, strays from this point of view, it is but an unsteady faith, an error diverted to one side and the other …. The same Spirit who assured the prophets in their vocation now provides us with a witness in our hearts, that He wanted to use them to teach us. One need not be surprised that many question the divinity of Holy Scripture, even though the majesty of God reveals itself so gloriously therein. Only those who are enlightened by the Holy Spirit have eyes to see what had to be visible to all and nevertheless is only noticed by the elect. Certainly, faith is not ignorance but knowledge, knowledge of God and His will. God asks the consent of the heart and not just the brain.”

This conviction gives the Reformed church its peculiar character and furnishing. The Word must rule – this is the only article of its Bylaws.

In his letter to Cardinal Sadolet, he writes:

When you describe [the Church] as that which in all parts, as well as at the present time, in every region of the earth, being united and consenting in Christ, has been always and every where directed by the one Spirit of Christ, what comes of the Word of the Lord, that clearest of all marks, and which the Lord himself, in pointing out the Church, so often recommends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, he declared that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, he annexed it to the Word. For this reason Christ exclaims, that those who are of God hear the word of God that his sheep are those which recognize his voice as that of their Shepherd, and any other voice as that of a stranger.[4]

That Word is understandable and allows of only one sound interpretation.

Therefore, he reminds the Archbishop of Canterbury that “nothing more effectually unites [the churches of God], and fortifies more powerfully the fold of Christ, than the uncorrupted doctrine of the gospel, and union in received opinions.”[5]

Hence he knows of no other remedy against the errors which owed their origin to the freedom of inquiry which the Reformation granted.

“The spectacle,” he says, speaking from the pulpit of St. Peter at Geneva, “that the world is showing today fills me with sadness. Certainly strange events have taken place. On the one hand, the miracles of the saints are exalted, and on the other, the great deeds of God are rejected. Instead of the mystery of godliness, the life of faith and love, the attempt is made to substitute a superficial religion, perhaps plain deism. Instead of the sun, the Word of God, one follows the false lights of human intents. O My children! yet cling to Holy Scripture, inspired by God. Maintain the doctrine, and you will have life. Gather together around the banner of your King. If you do not fight for the faith delivered to the fathers, the Reformation is lost and you with it. To be or not to be, that is the question now being asked; our irrecoverable fortress is this: to sincerely and utterly side with the Savior.”

The conviction underlying the entire Reformation, but in particular the church REformed according to this principle, that the Word of God must rule over all in all, not only determined its own administration but also its relation to the civil government.

It does not dream of a “Christianity, in narrow or broad sphere, above divisions of faith.”

Hence, its strength has not been broken by the views of unbelieving contemporaries, such as those which now seem to be self-evident truths, not only to our statesmen but also to many of our confessors of the gospel, to wit, as if no distinction could be made between the clear statements of the Word of God and the notions of a few citizens or groups of citizens. With a determination reminiscent of Israel’s prophets, it rises up before and, if need be, in opposition to the state. Its strength, the only such it seeks, lies in the unchangeable: “Thus saith the Lord!”

The civil government also is the servant of God, whether it acknowledges it or not, and if the church cannot come to it as Nathan came to David, then it will do so as Elijah came to Ahab.

The freedom of the church, of the state, of the individual is not an invention of recent times. This principle is firmly established in the Reformed view of the absolute sovereignty of God. Church and state are subject only to the Word of God, and exercise no authority over one another which is not in accordance with that Word. In that conviction Calvin, to cite one example, could write in the preface to his commentary on the prophet Isaiah, to Edward VI of England: “It is to you, glorious prince, to whom the Lord now wishes to speak through the prophet Isaiah. He requires of you that with all that you have and are capable of, you serve His Kingdom and become a patron and foster father of His church, which is afflicted.”

It is well known that the Lutheran church applied these principles less purely and consistently. It is evident from its institution and history. However, it would be overly distracting if we were to demonstrate this now with documentation.

We prefer to point out the principle by which the two churches were guided in the whole work of the Reformation.

Perhaps it has not escaped you that in the words spoken by Luther at the Diet at Worms, that he placed, alongside the statements of Holy Scripture, also cogent reasons.

This expression can certainly be taken in a sense which is unobjectionable, but this does not alter the fact that it is most closely related to the rule followed by Luther in distinction from what Zwingli and Calvin taught in this matter.

In the Lutheran church – we believe we may formulate the distinction like this – nothing is tolerated that is contrary to the statements of Holy Scripture; in the Reformed church, everything is rejected that is not based on the Word, that is derived from the Word.

Do we need to show how rich, how fruitful this principle is?

That the entire Word of God – the Old Testament as well as the New – is valid for our Reformers as guideline for all of life and in its various spheres; that through this Word the Lord God comes into a living, continuous relationship with the church; that faith is not merely the act by which we appropriate Christ and His benefits, but obedience to the Word in all circumstances of life; that the Reformed church does not see in that Word the letter of earlier revelation, but the continuous revelation of the same God, who through that Word and through His Spirit makes known to us His ways.

Well then, all of that is only the application of the great principle of the Reformation: Not to man, but to God be the glory!

In opposition to the demand of brethren who wish to put “the Apostolic Gospel” in the place of the Reformed Confession, who at least make a distinction between what in the Confession is generally Christian and what is denominational, and even though they are wholeheartedly united with it, push the latter to the background out of consideration for the need of the times, in the existing confusion, in the common struggle against unbelief, in order to promote unanimity and strength – in opposition to this, we emphatically assert that the peculiarity of the Reformed church does not consist in this or that doctrine or entirety of doctrines, but in the principle that the Confession, the institution of the church, and the practice of godliness dominate. Let us show this for example in the doctrine of election.

What is this doctrine but an application of the principle of the absolute sovereignty of God, which in turn is connected with respect for the Word of God, even in its most inexplicable statements, with the knowledge of God and His perfections, the confession of human misery, and the need to preserve the gospel of God’s grace in all its fullness and aptness?

The doctrine of election is not only preached by Calvin, not only viewed as a precious gem by the Reformed church: all those in whom the principle of Reformation – whether in the Roman or the Protestant churches, we leave now to one side – was equally active, all who had deeper conceptions of sin and grace, expressed themselves in a similar way. Augustine, Huss, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli are entirely one in this respect. Some of Luther’s statements are even more decided and paradoxical than Calvin’s. But with Calvin and the Reformed church, these statements are not invalidated by others; the principle is applied here more consistently, and in truth has become “the heart of the church.”

All boasting is not excluded, the Lord God is not in truth sovereign, His grace is not essentially free, as long as the determining cause of our salvation lies in the arbitrariness of the creature and not in the good pleasure of God.

“God,” says Calvin, “does not come into His own as long as man does not lie down there crushed, has not come to the knowledge that all good in him is infused from without…. We are accustomed to hearing about the cooperation of God’s grace and the will of man, but this utterance of the Lord: ‘You did not choose Me; I chose you,’ gives the Savior the honor of that which people wish to split between Him and man in this way. Man does not begin to search before he is found.”

The place which this doctrine occupies in the whole of the Confession, therefore, lends it some peculiarity, gives it something that distinguishes it, that characterizes it. The Reformed may, for example, read Luther’s preface to the letter to the Galatians with approval, but nevertheless feel the heart of the church beating in a description of the work of God in the soul such as Calvin gave in his letter to Cardinal Sadolet:

Wherever the knowledge of [justification by faith] is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown…. But you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that, by attributing every thing to faith, we leave no room for works.

First, We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if  given up to final perdition.

Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.

Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, [works] are worth one single straw.

We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous.[6]

This anniversary of the Reformation is a testimony to the incorruptibility of the principle which came into its own in the Reformation and, consequently, precisely in the “Reformed” church.

Our fathers did not deviate from that principle when they steadfastly weeded out Remonstrantism as a parasitic plant that imbibed the juices of the life of grace, the life of the church.

We have not disposed of this principle because we are opposed to falsely named science and its priesthood, taking the place of the church invested with the authority of antiquity, tradition, world power.

The honor of God is still what is most important.

The word of our text is still valid: “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

The return to the principle of the Reformation is not the demand of those who wish for repristination, but the demand to move forward in the right way, the way that alone leads to the goal, and thus beforehand to return – in this sense, and for this purpose – to the parting of the ways, to where we took a wrong turn.

The work of the Reformation will not be completed until all crowns, even of those of the redeemed, are laid at the feet of the Lamb, and all praise and thanks, worship, and glory are brought to the Son with the Father, the Father in the Son.

No matter how misunderstood and dishonored by its proponents, this principle contains life force.

It lives in Scotland and America, it reappears in Germany, France, Austria. A great deal has also changed in the Netherlands since Schotsman was reviled and opposed in our church, indeed even by the erstwhile orthodox, because he did not leave off of erecting a commemorative column in the form of a concise, harmless bit of writing, on the occasion of the second centenary of the Synod of Dort.

There they sat in the gate of our ecclesiastical life, the Mordecais who, though they were of no account to most of the pastors of the church, yea though they were not even always an honor of Christ, embittered as they were by the general approval and acclaim that these pastors found – were living, fearless, incorruptible witnesses to a principle that could not tolerate being weakened or watered down.

Does it not appear more and more that the Reformation has dyed and imbued the fabric of our popular life, so that all the other dyes afterwards applied could not penetrate into the fabric, indeed gradually faded away, while the original color is restored, and can only be destroyed by destroying the fabric itself?

We can regret this or rejoice over it! Regardless; if we only accept this, that one is not Reformed by taking a name, a slogan, or even by confessing some truth, but only by agreeing to and imbibing the principle of the Reformation, which in truth may be called a life principle.

It is “the knowledge of God” that the Reformation is about and will continue to be about. But that knowledge goes hand in hand with self-knowledge. It is impossible to intend the glory of God and at the same time our own honor, our selves. Every lofty thing that rises in us against God and His Word must be destroyed, all self-righteousness, self-conceit, self-love must be banned! That takes effort!

No, more than that – it is not our job to make ourselves nothing. We have resisted God and His commandments in order to become “something” in our own eyes, in the eyes of men, even in the eyes of God.

In this sense of the word, i.e., in view of what we have incorporated into us of this principle, we may say: We are not, we do not make ourselves, but we become REformed, and we become this where we let ourselves be judged by the Word, where God is glorified at the highest in our salvation, and where we should justify Him even in our damnation.

When we have come to know God and ourselves, when God in the process of casting down those lofty things in us — then we shall understand in some measure what it means, “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.”

God’s Word must rule, my brothers! In school, in church, with every scientific investigation, through the civil government.

God’s Word, not our will.

God’s Word, not our wisdom.

God’s Word, not insofar as it agrees with our insights, but in order to bring our thoughts into agreement with it.

Not only do we need the Bible in the school, but we need to go to school in the Bible.

Not only do we need Reformed divines, we also need Reformed, i.e., Scriptural divinity.

It must not be our aim to solder and wire the structure of our church so that it can “keep up” for a while; not our aim to find here and there a loophole in the net of our regulations, in order to let our conscience enjoy a modest freedom in this way; but to judge everything according to the Word of God, and to continue the Reformation only with that Word, after preliminary self-examination as to whether we ourselves are willing to submit to that Word only and completely.

And above all it holds true here to walk in the flesh and yet not fight with fleshly weapons. The Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword.

Obedience, brothers, is better than sacrifice. With a self-willed religion, a giving and running and speaking and working which at bottom comes only from self-love and not from obedience to God, with a self-empowered struggle in which the glory of God is not the end and God’s Word is not the means, we get nowhere.

He demands submission from us, and through us from what is ours, in every sphere of life.

It is said of Galerius, who persecuted the Christians with fire and sword, that he once had himself brought near one of the most beautiful places of their worship, which was set on fire at his imperial command. He saw the building go up in flames. He tasted the pleasure of seeing the leaves of the sacred books, lifted by the wind that blew on the fire, consumed before his eyes. But one of those precious leaves is torn away by the wind and laid down at his feet. He reads. He reads with astonishment: “The grass withers, and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the word which was preached to you” [1 Peter 1:24–25].

Helping hands may again give that leaf back to the flames. But this does not destroy the truth.

Galerius could even forget that Word completely. But that is why he just as well will have to be judged by that Word.

That is the Word that the Reformation bestowed anew upon us. The Word of the Lord, by which He makes known to us His ways, makes known His will and – that He allow us to experience it now and continuously by renewal! – reveals Himself to our soul.

[1] “Reply by John Calvin to Letter by Cardinal Sadolet to the Senate and People of Geneva,” Selected Works of John Calvin, Volume 1, tran. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), p. 50.

[2] For more on this, including Luther’s hymn, see the Wikipedia article Jan van Essen and Hendrik Vos.

[3] As opposed to “Gereformeerd,” the church’s original designation. Both terms mean the same thing: Reformed.

[4] Letter to Sadolet, p. 35.

[5] This actually was written to Calvin by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a letter dated April 1552. See Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, vol. 5: Letters, Part 2, 1545–1553, trans. David Constable (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983 [1858]), p. 345.

[6] Letter to Sadolet, pp. 41–43.