The Antithesis and Witnessing (7)

This is the final article in the series written by Prof. Herman Hanko, and was originally published in the January, 2009 issue of the Beacon Lights.

Our defense of our hope, according to I Peter 3:15, must be with meekness and fear. Fear is just that: fear that we will do something in our lives, our confession, our witnessing that makes God angry with us.

So it is true that we are very much afraid that we may do something that makes God angry with us. But we are afraid also that doing something displeasing to him will hurt him. He has done so much for us and given us so many wonderful things: churches where the gospel is preached, schools where the Reformed faith is put into the knowledge of God in all creation, homes which are covenant homes and parents who love us, forgiveness of sins, the privilege of representing Christ’s cause in the world, a glorious hope at the end of our journey here – a book could be filled with what he has done for us.

If now we sin against him, we hurt him by our ingratitude. We slap in the face the One who loves us so much. It is the point that our Heidelberg Catechism makes when it devotes the third chapter to “Our Gratitude” and reminds us that gratitude means walking in obedience to God’s commandment.

There are those who say that in our witnessing we must not “come at people like a bulldozer and simply run them over and plow them under.” There are those who plead for tact, for carefulness, for diplomacy. There are people who claim that we must take a soft approach to witnessing and “catch them with guile.”

I hear what they are saying and take it all to heart. But all these things are, in the truest sense of the word, included in giving a defense of our hope “with meekness and fear.” If we follow Peter’s advice (no, not advice but command, for what he says is inspired by the Holy Spirit), we will not be guilty of any of these things.

I think I learned that in college when there were many PRs in Calvin. Some thought it their solemn duty to pick a fight with every professor who said anything that they thought wrong. They made a nuisance of themselves and gave to PRs a bad name. It is one thing to stand for what one believes and to do so whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it is quite another thing to defend our hope without a smidgeon of meekness and fear.

I recall an instance when my wife and I were in Northern Ireland. There was a man who was interested in and convinced of the truth of the Reformed faith. He wanted to be a minister and wanted to attend Seminary to prepare himself. He was persuaded that the best Seminary in NI was a Baptist Seminary. He enrolled and began his studies.

It so happened that in this school the students were required to deliver a sermon at student chapel toward the end of their first years. This particular man preached on the theme: “Ten Things That Are Wrong With The Baptist Church.” I do not know what text he used. We can easily understand that he was forthwith expelled. His claim was that he was persecuted for his faith. But I had to tell him that what he experienced was not persecution at all, but simply foolishness which brought on him what he deserved. I had to remind him that he knew what the school believed before he enrolled, that he was a guest at the school, and that, while he had thought he was defending the faith, he was not doing so with any discernible meekness and fear—to say nothing about wisdom. He did more harm than good. His “zeal” took him away from the Reformed faith.

It is possible to be overly zealous and bring damage to the cause of Christ. It is also possible to be wishy-washy, soft and bland, a colorless person who mouths insipid nothings, who presents in his witness barley water rather than the meat of the Word. It is possible to be so “tactful” and “diplomatic” that the gospel gets drowned in carefully chosen words and fear of being offensive.

Meekness and fear take care of it all.

One more matter, and then I am finished with I Peter 3:15.

That word “ready” is one of no little concern to me. Are we ready? It is a question worth asking ourselves. When someone asks us a reason for the hope that is within us, are we ready to defend our hope? Suppose the question concerns our belief in creationism instead of evolutionism? Must we tell the one who asks: “Give me a little time. I’ll ask my pastor about that. I’ll have to see if I can find a book in my dad’s library that speaks of that.” Or, if someone wants to defend an Arminian position and teach that God loves all men and that Christ died for all men, are we “ready” to answer him? Or do we put him off until we can read Reformed Dogmatics on the subject?

If someone wonders why divorce and remarriage are wrong and asks you about it, do you have to rush away and read Marriage: the Mystery of Christ and the Church? before you can give your defense of the position that divorce and remarriage are wrong?

In other words, is Scripture an important part of our lives? And does the study of Scripture occupy our attention on a regular basis? Or to put it more specifically: Do we know what our churches believe and why they believe what they do? Do we understand why it is important to believe the doctrines that our churches say are important?

I do not think that when young people make confession of their faith, the consistory must make the central question of the examination: Do you believe that Christ is your personal Savior? Nor do I believe that the Consistory must, above all, judge the matter of sincerity. The all-important question has got to be: “Why are you making your confession in this church? and not in the Baptist Church around the corner?” The answer to that question is crucial for Christian witnessing. Sincerity is not enough. There are many sincere people in the world. What is one sincere about? Paul even speaks of the Pharisees and Israel as a whole who had “a zeal of God.” But he quickly adds, “but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2).

Here, I think, is where the pinch comes. Many of us are excited about witnessing—as we ought to be. But to take the time to study, to learn, to read, to prepare ourselves to defend our hope—that is something different. We have so many obligations. We are so busy. The demands on us are so great. We can’t find the time for private devotions, must less for studying and reading.

Be ready! That means working hard to learn as much as we can in catechism where we have a golden opportunity to learn. That means attending classes where the truth is discussed and taught. That means being diligent in learning what the PR church stands for and why this is the truth of Scripture. That means a life of diligence in the pursuit of true knowledge.

I say again: Without being ready to defend our hope, we are going to make very poor witnesses and run the risk of doing more harm than good.

Peter’s words are packed with wisdom. I Peter 3:15 is our polestar on the road of witnessing.

The Antithesis and Witnessing (6)

This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was originally published in the December, 2008 issue of the Beacon Lights.

The antithesis is closely related to witnessing because the most powerful form of our witnessing is a godly life; and a godly life is an antithetical life. When one lives a godly life one says by his actions: “I hate sin; and I love to do what God commands in his word.” That hatred of sin and love for God’s commandments is what the antithesis is all about.

A godly life is a powerful witness for two reasons. People in “Christian” countries know quite a bit about Christianity and the Bible. They may not pay very much attention to it, but they know in a general way what the Bible says. When they see that there are people who live according to what the Bible demands, they know that that is the right way to walk.

All men have consciences. Their consciences tell them what God has to say about their actions. God always testifies in the consciences of every man whether what he has done is pleasing to God and has his approval, or whether what a person has done is wicked and therefore incurs God’s fierce anger. That conscience is God’s voice in a man, but through the Scriptures. In “Christian” countries most people know the ten commandments exist—somewhere. They know too that the ten commandments are God’s standard of right and wrong. They hear, therefore, the voice of God in their consciences telling them that they are doing what God hates and that God will punish them with dreadful punishments.

Even in countries that are not “Christian,” people still have a conscience. They do not hear the voice of God speaking through the Bible, but they hear the voice of God speaking through creation. And creation says the same thing as the Bible, only in a much softer and less complete way. Paul tells us this in Romans 1:18-23. Paul tells us that God makes himself known through all the things that are made so that the whole creation speaks of God’s “eternal power and Godhead.” In revealing God’s eternal power and Godhead creation says two things: 1) God alone is God and all idols are the work of men; and, 2) God alone must be served.

Because creation says these things, Paul can say in Romans 2:14, 15 that the wicked shew the works of the law written in their hearts. They do not do the works of the law, but “their conscience also [bears] witness and their thoughts” accuse or else excuse one another.

Now, whether it be someone in “Christian” countries or whether it be someone in “pagan” countries, these people see the godly walk of the believer. Because those in Christian countries do not know all that much about Christianity, and because they have persuaded themselves that sin is far more fun than keeping God’s commandments, they find it strange that there are people who do keep God’s commandments.

The same is true of pagans. They cannot imagine that there are people who do keep God’s commandments; that is, who actually do not do what God condemns.

In both instances, these people “ask a reason for the hope” that is the believer’s heart, and that is made evident by the believer’s walk. Peter says (and this is also witnessing), we must be ready to make a defense of our hope. That is witnessing at its most powerful, for that is witnessing that follows the directives of Scripture.

We must, Peter goes on to say, give a defense of our hope “with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3:15). Meekness and fear. True witnessing is always a display of meekness and fear. In fact, I think it is true that any witnessing that is not done with meekness and fear is no witnessing at all. The way we defend our hope is also part of our witness.

Meekness does not mean timidity. It does not mean hesitancy and awkwardness. It does mean a reluctance to tell someone that he is wrong, dead wrong, and that what he believes and what he does puts him in danger of God’s wrath in this life, but also in hell.

Meekness is the opposite of pride. It is dangerously possible to defend our hope in such a way that we leave the impression that we know far more than the one with whom we are talking; that we are far holier than they are; and that we look down our long noses at them with pity and disdain. I know sometimes people say to us, “You think you are holier than we are; you think you are the only ones who are going to heaven; you think that you have a corner on the truth.” Maybe sometimes we do actually leave that impression with people. That doesn’t do much good for defending our faith.

Meekness means that, in our defense of our hope, we make it very clear that we were very sinful, as sinful as anyone else, that we still are sinful and do things that everyone in the world does, but that we are sorry for our sins, are saved by God’s grace alone and are given something very great and very precious even though we have never deserved it. We do not need to say all these things immediately, but we do need to witness in our defense of our hope in such a way that we point, not to ourselves, but to God who has given us this wonderful hope for the future and who asks us to live in such a way that our lives express our hope to go to heaven some day.

Witnessing is never a demonstration of our own holiness. It is not a statement of our own skill in debate. It is never in any way a pointing to ourselves. It is always a pointing to God. It is a living and verbal testimony of God’s greatness, glory and grace through Jesus Christ. It is a sharp and unmistakable statement that such blessedness as we possess comes from faith in Jesus Christ, and the one(s) with whom we are talking must also believe in Christ, for it is God’s command; and that believing they will join us in our walk toward heaven.

But, Peter says, we must also make our defense of our hope with fear.

Very obviously, Peter does not mean “terror.” How can we witness if we are terrified to witness? We are terrified—frequently. We do not want to say anything to someone sinning because we are afraid that the person will become angry, call us bad names, frighten us with threats, push us away from him, and make our life miserable in some way. I guess we like to be considered nice guys, or, nice gals.

But Peter is talking about the fear of God.

In a way, we are afraid of God. Even we Christians can and should be afraid of God. We should be so afraid of God’s anger against us that we do not want to do anything that we know is displeasing to him. We are like a young girl who tells her friends that she will not go along with them to a dance because she knows her parents disapprove, and she does not want to do anything that makes her parents angry with her.

There is, in the life of the Christian, room for a holy terror.

And real fear always has in it that idea of terror that I just described. It is true that we in the defense of our hope are to be careful that our witness is a correct witness of God’s truth. We surely must not misrepresent God. We must not say something about God that is not true. We must not deny our faith because we are ignorant of it, or because we are afraid to “tell it like it is.”

We would do God terrible injustice if we did that. It would be like telling someone who spoke evilly of our parents, that these evils of which they speak are partly true. It would be like failing to tell the one to whom we are witnessing only a part of what our parents are like, because we do not want to offend. It would be like leaving the impression that the slanderer of our parents is partly correct at least, and our interest in defending our parents’ integrity is drowned in terror of what the slanderer might say or do.

Fear in our witness is to say what is, as a matter of fact, the case. It is to be so afraid of offending our God (who hears all we say) that we would not do anything that would bring harm on him whom we love; we would not do anything of which he disapproves; we would not say anything about him that is offensive to him. The fear of which Peter speaks is born out of love. It is our love for God that gives us fear.

God says that no one who is a drunkard, or an adulterer, or a blasphemer will go to heaven. We must, if we are to witness, say the same thing. God says that any one who says that we are capable of doing something ourselves that will help us go to heaven will not go to heaven. Fear means that we say that all (yes, all) our salvation is in the cross and is the gift of grace so that God alone may be glorified; any other doctrine is accursed (Galatians 1:8, 9).

Fear does not say, “There are many good things to be found in other churches from which we can learn and which ought to make us tolerant of these churches.” Fear does not say, “It doesn’t really matter what a man believes, as long as he is sincere.” Fear does not hide our membership in the Protestant Reformed Churches; fear says that we are members in the Protestant Reformed Churches because we believe that in these churches the truth is preached more clearly than elsewhere in this country. Fear says, without equivocation and hesitancy, that the truth is the truth of God and his glory and that we need that to keep our feet on the straight and narrow path that leads to heaven.

Rev. De Wolf said in his sermon in which he was condemned by Classis East that he did not like people who wore “Protestant Reformed” on the lapel of their coats (although this was not the statement for which he was condemned). Well, I am not sure I like them either—especially if people think that mere membership in a PR church will guarantee a reserved place in heaven. But I don’t like people either who are afraid to stand up for and defend our churches, who hesitate to reveal their church membership, and who are not careful to insist that believers belong in the true church (and that the Protestant Reformed Churches are the true church in this country.) If we do not believe that, then the question is: Why are we members here?

We fear, you see, that we misrepresent God.

The Antithesis and Witnessing (5)

This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was originally published in the November, 2008 issue of the Beacon Lights.

Christian witnessing is, first of all, a godly life. A godly life attracts the attention of the unbeliever. He reacts with a question concerning the sense of a godly life, for he can see no sense to it. His motto is, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” It is at this point that witnessing becomes verbal. It is at this point that we must be prepared to given an answer of the hope that lies within us.

A godly life is an expression of our hope. Our hope is simply that “this world is not my home; I’m only passing through.” Our hope is an expression of our desire to go home, and our home is in heaven where our Father lives and where our elder brother lives. We want to go home. And the land in which we now live is a foreign country to us, in which the citizens of the country hate us and make our life miserable—unless we are satisfied to keep our mouths shut and live the way they do.

So, because they find us so odd, they ask us why we live the way they do. Our witness is, therefore, first of all, our peculiar (to the citizens of this country) walk. And then, when the questions come, our witness is our defense of our hope.

The wicked, Peter says, ask us a “reason” for the hope that is in us. Why do you live the way you do? Why won’t you join us in our “fun?” Why are you so different? Explain yourselves.

We must give an answer.

The word that Peter uses here is really better translated “apology.” This word “apology” is a bit of a puzzle. We take it in the sense of telling someone that we are sorry for what we have done. We apologize. That can’t be what Peter means. We do not and never ought to apologize for our Christian life—although sometimes we act as if we do need to apologize. We are shy about our faith. Or, worse, we are scared that the wicked will mock us for how we live. And so we become very hesitant and apologetic as if we mean to say, “We are really sorry for not drinking booze with you; we are really sorry for not going to your movies; we want to apologize in case we have offended you by telling you not to swear.” All sorts of wrong apologies.

But Peter does not mean that kind of apology. That kind of apology would do more harm than good. Peter means with the word “apology” what we mean by the term “apologetics.” When I was examined by Classis East prior to my ordination into the ministry of the Word of God and the sacraments, I had to be examined in “Apologetics.” It was not such an easy exam for me, because I had never had any instruction in this subject. In fact, it seems to me that I rarely heard the word. Even the subject in which I was examined was not called “Apologetics,” but “controversy.” Perhaps the churches were afraid that the term would be taken in the wrong sense.

Apologetics or Controversy meant “defense of the faith.” The Classis wanted to know whether I could defend the faith. They wanted to know if I could defend the truth of God’s sovereignty over against an Arminian. They wanted to know if I could explain clearly why we believed that the gospel was not a well-meant and gracious offer of salvation. They wanted to know if I knew how to defend particular grace over against common grace. And they wanted to know if I could explain the hard texts that were used by those who defended heresies, so that I could show how these texts were being hopelessly and wrongly twisted.

We have to defend our hope of going to heaven to those who ask us about it. We have to explain clearly the reasons why we live the way we do here in the world. We have to be able to say, “We believe the truth that is revealed in Scripture, and this is what that truth is.” We have to explain carefully and clearly what it means to believe that God created the world in six days of twenty-four hours and why evolutionism in all its forms is a deadly heresy that destroys the truth and all morals. We have to explain why, if those who ask appeal to science as proof of a very old earth, they are dead wrong in their science and why they may not appeal to science to show that the Scriptures are wrong. We have to explain that the reason why Arminianism is a heresy is because it says something terrible about God: it says that God can’t save unless man lets him save. We have to make a strong point of it that we love God and we cannot bear people saying bad things about him—any more than we can stand it when people say bad things about our parents whom we love.

We live the way we do because we love God, do we not? And to love God is a defense of God and a defense of our hope. This sort of thing is witnessing at its best. It is God-glorifying. It is divinely approved. It has the seal of heaven on it. It is the witnessing that God will use to “bring others to Christ.”

But, and I guess this is most difficult of all, we defend our hope also by telling those who ask us questions that the way we live is the only way to go to heaven, and that the way they live is a sure road to hell. There are not that many people who are forever talking about witnessing who are willing to say these things. But it has to be a part of our “apology”, our defense of our faith. The wicked are under solemn obligation to obey God, and God demands that men keep his law. God does not stand in front of men and beg them to believe. He commands them that they must believe at the peril of their souls. God does not pleadingly tell them how much he loves them; how he has done all he can to save them; and how much he would like it that they now accept his kind offers and in that way escape hell. He tells them they must do what he commands, and that they will be destroyed if they do not listen and obey.

This is the sticky part of witnessing, and there be few who are interested in anything like this. Everybody knows that this sort of approach to witnessing will get one into trouble and will inevitably end in suffering for Christ’s sake. And no one likes that—except those few who understand that it is a privilege and a blessing to suffer for the cause of Christ and that it is only through much tribulation that we can go home to Christ (Acts 14:22).

Witnesses love the truth and are willing to die for it. Witnesses are people of unwavering conviction and are ready to suffer for their conviction. Witnesses are people who are courageous and brave and are not scared by the hostility of others. Witnesses are true pilgrims in the world who live an antithetical life.