Lord's Day 33 (1942) - Prof. Benne Holwerda
Note about the translator: Mr. Gilbert Zekveld was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He farmed for many years in the Bowmanville area of Ontario where he was actively involved with Christian Reformed and later Orthodox Christian Reformed church life.
This sermon was delivered Sunday, November 1, 1942
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
You must have heard the expression, "Once converted, always converted". You can agree with that, as long as you understand it well and don't use it the way many do. For experience in spiritual and ecclesiastical life has made us aware that this expression can be very dangerous. You can make this distinction between the first and the daily repentance that follows the first conversion. But you must be careful in the way you see it. There are people, who, when they fall into sin, comfort themselves with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, saints cannot fall away. When their conscience accuses them, they rest in the fact that they were at one time converted. Often they will tell you the hour and place and they will tell you exactly how it happened. They will tell you, "Once converted, always converted." They mean to say that sins committed after their conversion are not so bad, it is not a dangerous matter. It may rob us of peace in the heart, can bother us considerably, but these later sins will never take us back to the state of one who is not converted. That we refuse to repent daily from our sins, that can never influence the fact that we were once converted.
It is dangerous to speak like that. For this person appeals to the fact and the strength of a first repentance, in order to hide an aversion to daily repentance and cover up its gravity. With the fact of his first repentance he undermines the necessity of daily repentance. With an appeal to the grace of his original repentance, he becomes a careless and godless person. This man is a liar, even though he takes the truth of the perseverance of the saints in his mouth. He is a liar, I say, because he does not obey the commandment of daily repentance, he does not take that daily responsibility. He says, "I am converted, there is the perseverance of the saints, and so, I will be all right." By saying, "the saints persevere", he proves that he is a liar. For if he really believed in the perseverance of the saints, he would persevere in repentance and maintain the first conversion in a daily repentance. A man who is born of the truth, speaks differently, and lives differently. He says, "I am converted; God began His work in me, He laid His hand on me; with Word and Spirit He became too much for me, that is why I repented.
But this is not the end. I cannot sit down and rest, because the saints do persevere. No, he says, "Now I am converted, I must be very careful. From now on it will be very important how I live. For God does not leave the works of His hands. God keeps me in His power. He maintains the grace and power that He granted me in my initial conversion. God maintains that grace and grants me power from above for every new day. But because God perseveres in granting strength, I have to persevere everyday in accepting and using that power. Because God continues and does not grant me grace once, but does so permanently, I must keep on persevering. It is impossible to repent once, and then go to rest. God maintains the grace from the beginning, also in every successive day. That is perseverance as seen from God's side. That is why I also have to maintain my first repentance in a daily repentance, only that is perseverance from my side.
The perseverance of the saints is a beautiful part of our confession for the spiritual man, but notice, not for the natural man! The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit; neither does he accept the perseverance of the saints. He says that the Lord will look after it from now on; it will be all right; I am not responsible anymore. The natural man says that God perseveres, and therefore I don't do it anymore. The spiritual man says that every gift of God is at the same time a demand. Every grace is a mandate. Every grace received makes my responsibility greater. The Lord gives, but I must accept. How was the first repentance? It was worked by God, that is why I repented. But now, o man, you must shudder, and at the same time shout for joy. For now I say that God is faithful; He does not forsake the works of His hands. God perseveres in the works of grace. Whatever He creates, His Providence will maintain. When He creates the work of repentance, His Providence provides us day by day with new strength from above. But precisely because God perseveres in His works, I must persevere. God perseveres, and that is my salvation, for I myself could not do it. But it is also my responsibility, I now must persevere. Because the Lord maintains the beginning in what follows until the end, that is why I must maintain my first repentance in following it with daily repentance until the end. For having repented once, we must repent daily after that. Indeed. Because there was a beginning, that what follows will be so important. Beloved, from now on be careful with this word. Say freely: I am converted by God's grace. But never think, now all is well. For once I am converted, I must repent daily. I must continue, because the Lord progresses with my conversion. "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you both to do and to will of His good pleasure"
(Phil. 2: 13).
I will speak to you of daily repentance from evil works to good works.
This is daily repentance:
1. From unbelief to belief.
2. From self-will to obedience.
3. From self-interest to God's glory.
1. The Catechism again distinguishes, for it asks the question of how many parts true conversion consists. We see that more often in the confession. How many things are necessary to die and live happily: three. It is a beautiful thing that the catechism does that. For we know by now that the catechism is not be a book for the learned, but a book of comfort to all of us. This question of the number of parts is not asked to satisfy scientific motives, but comes from practical considerations. It is not important how we must divide and classify the different subject matters, we leave that to men of learning. The purpose is, that for the sake of daily living, we may clearly see how these matters are and how the way to faith may be opened. For you know how often ignorance and misunderstanding hinder our faith. Many have difficulties with election, because they do not have the right understanding; many have problems with faith and self-examination, because they don't know exactly what the Word teaches.
In the same way many have difficulties with conversion. Am I converted? Is my conversion real? These are questions, not from the study, but from daily living. It is here that the catechism will lend a helping hand, by telling you, how it is; what the Bible means by conversion; what elements must be distinguished. And yet, beloved, we must be careful with distinguishing too. For little by little, distinctions make our people more confused. Lord's Day 1 teaches that faith is distinguished in three parts. Sin and misery, redemption and gratitude. We must distinguish, but never separate. Precisely as I can distinguish in a plant between root, stock and flower; but as soon as I pull them apart, nothing is left but some matter, and the plant will perish. Lord's Days 7 and 8 teach us to distinguish between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their works. But heretics of all kinds separated the Three, and also their works. That is how they did not increase in the grace and knowledge of God, but ended up much more estranged.
The same danger threatens here with repentance. How many parts? Mortification of the old man and the quickening of the new man. On the one hand a heartfelt sorrow, increasing hatred for, and fleeing from sin. On the other hand a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and love and delight to live according to the will of God. That is how we must distinguish in order to see the riches; to know for sure what repentance is, and in due course indeed repent. We must learn to distinguish. As soon as you separate these two elements, you will be a hindrance to your own conversion.
Indeed it happens that people seperate the two. They are then made into two stages that follow each other. Two stages of repentance. The first stage is one of deep sorrow for sin, only when that stage is behind us, only then we can come, only then we may come to the second: a heartfelt joy in God through Christ.
How does that work out in every day life? Into the well-known type of the anxious Christian, who is always defeated; who lives in fear and servitude all his days; who worries about his misery, but does not rejoice in redemption. They are afraid for hell, but never rejoice about heaven. And one who does not repent. They are so afraid to call something their own, that could not be theirs. They say a heartfelt Amen to being lost in Adam. But it remains a big question whether they are redeemed in Christ.
But beloved, the confession never meant to say that. That is what many quacks made of it. We are not dealing with two stages of repentance, which follow each other, but with two moments, which are present at the same time. The old man dies gradually, and the new unfolds gradually; those two go hand in hand. Never in a way that there could be a heartfelt sorrow for sin, before we experience a heartfelt joy in God. Neither in a way that the mortification process continues, without the developing, quickening process of the new man, but both at the same time. When do I sorrow for having provoked God by my sins? Only then, when I experience a heartfelt joy in God through Christ. Not before that and in no other way. When do I taste this heartfelt joy? When at the same time I hate and flee my sins, and no other way. Those who boast in Christ and do not feel a heartfelt sorrow for sin, do not know what repentance is. And those who complain and sigh about their sins, without boasting in Christ, do not know about it either.
These two come together and develop together. You remember the prodigal son. You have read about his conversion. First, he left his father, he did not like to live at home, there was not enough diversion. The great world fascinated him. Then came the day of his conversion. How did it come? Well, he remembered his father. "How many hired servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!" (Luke 15: 17). All of a sudden he is aware how good it was at home, how rich. What at first he did not like about his father, pleases him now. How good was my father! How ungrateful a son I am! "I am no more worthy to be called thy son" (verse 21). That is repentance. In his heart he rejoices about his father.
Or, I think of Paul, when he complains, "Wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7: 24), because sin still reigned in his body. But that is not without heartfelt joy in God through Christ. "If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good" (verse 16). He delights in the law of God, he acknowledges that it is good, and he praises the Lord. And he says, "wretched man that I am", but at the same time, "I thank God through Jesus Christ my Lord!" That, beloved, is repentance.
You have to change your mind about this, repentance is not first regret, tears, sorrow, and then faith in Christ, and so finally joy in the Lord. Faith does not begin with repentance, but repentance begins with faith. Faith in Jesus Christ, in His blood, His cross in which God reveals at the same time His righteousness and mercy. And then I praise Him for His grace. Both at the same time, and both by faith in Christ.
I know that I am saying things to which others would take exception, or accept them with great hesitation. Also in our Churches it is a struggle to begin with faith, and not anymore with sorrow and regret. But even if no one would agree with me, I will not change my message. Don't you remember Lord's Day 32? "Since then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, why must we yet do good works? The fact of redemption is basic to our faith and is followed by good works.
Indeed, we read it in this Lord's Day. Must we repent from sin to good works? But good works are those, "done from true faith". In order to repent, I must begin with faith! It cannot be different. For faith is central; faith is the heart of all our life with God. In paradise, sin does not begin with cursing or adultery, but with unbelief; they did not want to obey the Word. It is from the heart that sin permeates all of life. Unbelief reveals itself in all kinds of sin. That is why in the first place repentance is repentance from unbelief to believing. Daily repentance is daily turning from unbelief to believing.
Repentance in our life begins with faith, with believing God's Word. Concerning the old man, we die daily; every day heartfelt sorrow increases because we have so little believed the Lord at His Word. And every day our joy in God through Christ increases.
No, don't tell me that this is too absolute, that repentance is out of reach for all of us, when we must begin with faith. I am not dealing here with a perfect faith, but about increasingly hating doubt, about increasingly resting in the promises. Faith is a process of growth and increasing assurance. Repentance is not a perfect faith; repentance is, "Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief". That is how we must begin every new day, with faith. Do not say, "I cannot do that". You heard what Paul said, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure." That is no contradiction as many believe, as if the apostle said that we have to do it ourselves, and God does it. He says, work your own salvation, complete what God begun in you. God works in you to will and to do, that is why you can do it, but that is why you must will and work. That is true of all repentance, and also of faith. You, yourself must believe, for the Lord works faith in you. By Word and Spirit the Lord moves you to faith; and then you believe.
That is the 'a-b-c' of repentance. Why are there so few good works? Because our faith is so small. The one has trouble with a bad temper, another with selfishness, a third with immorality; they want to fight it and that is what they do, but they don't persevere, they keep on falling. Yes, they are not successful because they don't fight in faith. When I have a temper, I should not say, "I must learn to contain myself." But I must believe in the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake, and in that faith I conquer the world, even my temper. When young people wrestle with dark passions of the flesh, my first attempt should not be to live a purer life. We must begin by believing that in Christ my sins are forgiven, and after every fall I rest again in Christ, believing that for His sake, sin shall not have the rule over my life.
The beginning of all repentance is faith. Daily repentance is also wrestling, every day, against the weakness of my faith. Daily repentance means, every Sunday I go to Church to increase my faith; it is living by the Word and from the Sacrament. We repent all our life, but it begins in Church, where God works and strengthens faith, and the basis is laid for daily repentance. That is why we should attend the worship service whenever we can; and we will not suggest that after two services we know enough. But we would urge you to consider this, the fountains of repentance will not be obstructed; for repentance from Sunday to Saturday depends on the strengthening of your faith on Sunday. Do not say that it makes no difference whether I attend worship services twice on Sunday; for it is how I live that makes the difference. Indeed, it is how you live that is important; but your life cannot flourish without the Church; for there is no repentance without faith. The world mocks, and says that they go to Church on Sunday and live so careless during the week, for it is in the Church on Sunday so cold; they don't seem to believe much, and therefore are so slow in doing good works. The standard of our life in the week is dominated by the standard of our Sunday. The one who left his place open here today is not able to do good works tomorrow.
2. Furthermore, repentance is repentance from self-will in connection with God's law. It is so beautifully said here, and we agree with it, but we should think about it. For there are so many things that determine our lives, things which dominate our Christian society.
For instance, I think of the power that tradition has among us. Of course I will not deny the value of Christian morals. But at times tradition is a power that hinders our repentance. Then we hear it said, "that is not how we used to do it", and the existing custom is preserved, but God's law forgotten.
There is the power of convention. People don't dare do anything, because others may laugh about it. We also have the demands of tact, some sensitivities must be respected. The demands of civility, don't say things so open and blunt. And we compromise, and are careful not to say unpleasant things; but at the same time God's law does not dominate.
But that is not repentance. Repentance is daily conforming to the law of the Lord. At times this can mean that I come into conflict with tact, or rather with what they call tact. For true tact is that I subject my life and that of my neighbour to the law. True civility is not a curtsy, and some nice words; it could be a sharp answer to bring out the truth, that the law of God may again have dominion. Amos compares the people of his day with the cows of Bashan, Paul calls the Galatians foolish; they were not exactly civil in their use of language. But they placed the Church under the law. Those who do that are often not appreciated, for the old man is still alive in the Church. One like that must often sail against the wind; he will be seen as a quarrelsome person. But there is repentance. It is not serious when the boat is rocked at times. How else can it be when the old man is being crucified? How do we make the Church restless? Not by the clear word of him who fights for the rule of law; but by playing politics, sparing certain persons, pleasing people. That poisons the Church. We must be very careful here, in our Church life we gave in too much already. When a simple protest of the Church of Amersfoort against the treatment of doctrinal differences was refused a hearing because of the tone at the same time discarding all arguments, it means degradation of our ecclesiastical life. For we cannot judge the tone before examining the arguments.
Repentance begins when God binds our life to His law; and the Lord perseveres. And so, daily repentance is a continuous examining and binding to His law. Only that is perseverance of the saints.
3. The same is true for the purpose of all good works. Only those that are done for the glory of God. Often we see it different. There is in our work often much self interest. Fear for our own well-being, turning back because of the consequences. We compromise, we choose the best from two evils; we say that we have to think about eventual consequences. O, we are successful in defending ourselves. To save the appearance. But Christianity is radical. It requires the absolute sacrifice. It means that we eliminate our own interests, because His honor settles the matter. Therefore, daily repentance is daily conflict, every day a new fight against ourselves, that God may receive His glory.
Now I finish where I began. Once converted is always converted. It is true, for God perseveres, and therefore we must persevere. One time conversion is only maintained in daily repentance. God moved me at one time to believe, and I said, "I believe, Lord help thou my unbelief." The Lord perseveres. He still moves me to faith by Word and Sacrament. Therefore, my will, being moved to faith by Him, must move itself, and after every doubt, every act of unbelief, return to Him in faith. The Lord converted me once and He bound me to His law. Then I said, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man". But He continues to bind me to that law. Daily repentance is to say, "O how do I love Thy law, it is my meditation all the day."
The Lord converted me once. He called me and drew me to glory in Him. Then I said, "Thou art my God, I shall praise Thee." But God perseveres; He keeps on drawing and calling me, therefore I must say, "Thine is the glory and the power, for ever."
For that is the perseverance of the saints, as God's gift of grace. But this brings tension in my life, for this also means perseverance as my calling. O God, Thou converted me once; thou dost convert me even today. Therefore I repented, and I will repent to believe, to keep Thy law, to glorify Thee, every day. Yes, Thou wilt perfect the works of Thy hands. In the beginning Thou hast taken my hand, and my hand began also. But Thou art still holding both my hands. Therefore I will not forsake what my hand began. "Thy mercy endures forever. O Lord, do not forsake the works of Thine own hands".
Sunday, November 1, 1942.