“Tradition. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as . . . as a fiddler on the roof.” So said Tevye, the father of five daughters, in the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof, about his attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives.

What is orthodusty? It is when the vitality of the faith, the people, and the church becomes fossilized. Jaroslav Pelikan, scholar of church history at Yale University, put it well when he said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Hence, orthodoxy can shift over time into orthodusty.

I am not saying that we as Reformed Christians are not spiritually minded or faithful. I believe the piety of our people, especially the older generation, is deep and exemplary. Nor do I mean that the URCNA is becoming liberal, as in having forsaken the faith. Our commitment to the confessions is strong. Furthermore, I do not mean that we should dispense with or denigrate our traditions. Tradition is indispensable and unavoidable. Even contemporary groups and spontaneous churches have traditions. Their traditions are contemporary and spontaneous, but they are traditions nonetheless.

Rather, I maintain that in far too many cases our orthodoxy is in our forms. As long as it’s “the way we’ve always done it,” then all is good; everything looks right. Danger ahead! Christianity is a religion of faith, not forms.

Thom Rainer in Autopsy of a Deceased Church1 lists symptoms of orthodusty. One symptoms chapter is titled “The Past As Hero.” In this chapter Rainer says, “The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero . . . they were fighting for the past. The good old days. The way it used to be. The way we want it today.” In my estimation, far too many suffer from this symptom.

While this evidence is anecdotal, it is no less true.

I recall once during a song service in one of our most conservative churches enjoying the youth group singing psalms from the Blue Psalter but with guitars. You could’ve heard a pin drop (not a commendation) until one of the more conservative members blurted out, “There goes the church!” I wonder what his reaction would’ve been upon hearing Psalm 150 in Israel’s worship, “Praise him with trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine and dance (Oops! Happy feet. After all, we don’t dance.), strings, pipe, loud clashing cymbals.” I wonder what the reaction would’ve been to us here in New York City when we began. We had no organist or pianist. We used an amplified acoustic guitar, or often times only a flute or violin to accompany, and we transposed the Psalter tunes each week. With no previous exposure to the Psalter, the congregation nevertheless sang with enthusiasm, and it was beautiful.

Or another anecdote is the way people revere two services on the Lord’s day as if it was the sole barometer of orthodoxy crying the all too familiar complaint, “Once-ers become none-cers.” I think two services have served the Church well over centuries. It has been a central means of preserving the faith from one generation to the next. But when it becomes the sine qua non of orthodoxy then we have fossilized. As pastor of a fledgling church plant, I traveled the country seeking support and often the first question I was asked was, “Do you have two services?” My response? “I’m trying to get people to come to one!”

A few synods ago, a church seeking entry into the URCNA struggled with some of our church order requirements, one of which was two services on the Lord’s day. Not only as new believers were they unused to two set services, but also they would have to rent two different locations at additional expense to them. In trying to comply, they found it difficult in many ways. Although they were trying, nothing was “good enough.” Sensing orthodusty in the air, they waved good-bye to the URCNA.

Must every church be a carbon copy? Is there no room for honest attempts which show progress, albeit slowly, or are only clones allowed into the URCNA? In order to be considered orthodox we all must look alike in practice. Why? Because that’s the way to do it right. This attitude is neither charitable nor missional.

The way to do it right is having the ability and capacity to meet people where they are and lead them to the place Christ wants them to be. This takes infinite patience and wisdom. But if we cannot do it, then we are destined to orthodusty. I believe we can and will do better. To that end I write, hope, pray, and labor.

Another chapter in Rainer’s book is “The Church Refused to Look Like the Community.” In the good old days the church was a part of the community. Then the community began to change and the members moved to another part of town. “They were willing to drive into the community where they once lived because it was after all, their church . . . there was almost never any effort to go into the community. And no one ever mentioned the possibility of a willingness to turn over the leadership of the church to the residents of the community . . . After all, it was their church.” I have seen this onze kerk (our church) mindset too often and in too many communities where our churches are located. Rainer continues, “Vibrant and living churches look after the interests of others. They are concerned for their communities . . . but dying churches are concerned with self-preservation. They are concerned with a certain way of doing church(read, “we’ve always done it this way”).They are all about self.”Let him who has ears to hear, listen.

In the chapter titled “The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission,” Ranier states, “Members of the dying church weren’t willing to go into the community to reach and minister to people. They weren’t willing to invite their unchurched friends and relatives . . . they just wanted it to happen. Without prayer. Without sacrifice. Without hard work.” (And, I might add, without the messiness that new converts make in the church. I believe that is a major reason why we do not evangelize. It is messy.)

I recall doing an evangelism seminar at one of our churches and then being asked back to do another the next year. When I asked what had been done since the previous visit the silence was deafening. Not one thing had been done. When residents in the immediate vicinity of this church were surveyed and asked, “What do you know about that church, the one located right over there?” the answers were uniform: people knew nothing about their neighborhood local church.

Rainer correctly assesses the damage: “Members of the dying churches really didn’t want growth unless that growth met their preferences and allowed them to remain comfortable.”This is when the church becomes “a religious cushion,” according to C. John Miller. Miller, in Outgrowing the Ingrown Church,2 observes, “Among conservatives and evangelicals, its primary mission all too often is to function as a preaching station where Christians gather to hear the gospel . . . to be reassured that liberals are mistaken about God and Hell, and to renew one’s sense of well being.”In my two-week intensive course on evangelism taught to seminarians, I have made this book required reading. Almost all of them relate how this book describes the churches they know.

Richard DeRidder (one of our own, by the way) comments on such a cushioned church: “the church becomes only the place where certain things are done [he is referring to the Belgic XXIX on how the confession defines the church] and it is not looked upon as a group called into existence to do something . . . a commissioned church with a responsibility to bring in the harvest of non-Christians from the field of the world.”3While wanting to be confessionally Reformed churches, we must never lose sight of the reason for our existence. We have not been called out of darkness into the light for the sake of ourselves. Called to worship God, we are called to bring others along to worship him also.

Change must begin in our pulpits, the steering rudder of any church. Yet here too, orthodusty can be found. I recall talking to Reverend Peter DeJong, former editor of this publication, about a funeral he attended some years ago. “How did the service go, sir?” I inquired. “Well, you wouldn’t disagree with a word the man said. But you wouldn’t know he believed a word of it.” A funeral sermon intended to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted lacked heart and passion—orthodusty once more. This is the reputation we have gained among many. A good friend was recently asked, “What comes to mind when describing Reformed/Presbyterian preaching?” His reply:

I’m being clear and I’m not joking, It’s terrible! When I go to the average, run-of-the-mill Presbyterian/Reformed/Dutch churches (pick from the alphabet soup of conservative denominations: OPC, PCA, CRE, ARP, URC, CRC, Free Reformed, Heritage Reformed, etc.), you get a lecture with an academic-type exposition of the Word and usually, if one was honest, you find yourself hard pressed not to fall asleep. Usually the lecture is devoid of real-world metaphors/imagery/example, no less a coherent theme or thought that is etched across the lecture (it’s hard to call it a sermon). It is generally uncontextualized so as to galvanize the conscience into action that is consistent with biblical obedience. As such, it doesn’t create a connection between the twenty-first-century listener and the writer of the text (whatever it may be), and the thrust of what is being communicated from the Word. In this sense it’s hard to be edified. My experience is that men have a difficult time crafting a simple and compelling introduction to a sermon/lecture, and often times they present incongruent musings that in reality reflect the ramblings of one wandering in the theological wilderness ranging from Dan to Beersheba.


What is the cure for our orthodusty? Spiritual problems call for spiritual solutions. I suggest the following:

Serious, prayerful self-examination. Just as this needs to be done prior to communion, so it should be done periodically as a church, especially the leaders. I suggest regular review of the church’s mission, purpose, and how its ministries are or are not serving those ends.

Pray for the Head of the church to lead, feed, and guide you to his intended purposes.

Repent of any and all forms of traditionalism that impede your mission. Confess them to the Lord who is ready to forgive us all our sins.

Seek counsel. Proverbs tells us this is wise. I suggest reading Rainer, Miller, and others. As Bereans, search yourselves in light of the Scriptures they reference.

Be willing to change, radically if necessary, and reform according to the Scriptures. Practice semper reformanda.

Allow change to lead to action and a new upward and outward focus.

When these steps are followed you will have become a new, truly orthodox church.


1. Thom Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church (Nashville, TN: B & H, 2014). This book is the result of analyzing fourteen churches that closed their doors.

2. C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 20.

3. Richard DeRidder, Discipling the Nations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971), 213.


Rev. Paul T. Murphy
is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.
He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.

The Armor of God: Being Strong Against Satan

“Why are you called a Christian?” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 32). We are because we bear the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:26; 1 Pet. 4:16). Not only does this name mark us out positively as followers of Jesus Christ, but also it marks us out negatively—as targets for Satan’s flaming arrows. Do you realize you are at war, Christian? Wake up! Your enemy is at the gate! Arise; prepare for battle! Your manual for battle is found in Ephesians 6 and Paul’s description of “the armor of God.” It’s this manual on spiritual warfare that we’ll become familiar with in the coming articles. Let’s focus now on verse 10 and the necessity of being strong against Satan.

Our Calling

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” What kind of verbs are “be strong” here in verse 10 and later in the text: “put on” (v. 11), “take up” (v. 13), and “stand” (vv. 11, 13, 14)? These are imperatives. That means that they call us to do something. You are called to “be strong” and “fight against sin and the devil in this life” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 32).

This idea that we are called to be strong in warfare against sin and Satan is illustrated wonderfully from church history. From the early records we have, they had a practice in which the person being baptized or the parents who brought their children for baptism not only pronounced their faith—“I believe in God the Father Almighty . . . I believe in Jesus Christ . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit”—but they would also renounce the devil. They were asked, “Do you renounce the devil and his works,” to which they were to reply, “I renounce.” In 1561 Zürich’s main pastor, Heinrich Bullinger, prepared to die by writing his last will and testament in the form of what came to be known as the Second Helvetic Confession. In it he said by baptism we have become “soldiers enlisted for the holy warfare of Christ, that all our life long we should fight against the world, Satan, and our own flesh” (art. 20.4).

This call is impressed upon us in the post-baptismal prayer where we pray the baptized will “manfully fight against and overcome sin, the devil, and his whole dominion.”

Our Courage

To “be strong” takes spiritual courage in the face of a formidable foe. You are called to stand opposite on the field of battle against Satan. He is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2)—a vast army of fallen, selfish, and wicked demons. He is like a “roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8)—strong, powerful, and fierce. He is “a great red dragon” (Rev. 12:3) whose desire is to devour you, his enemy. And although he disguises himself as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14), you know before whom you stand. Do not be deceived or lulled to sleep.

Be strong, O church! Have the courage of Abraham and his 318 trained men, who sought and fought four great kings to rescue Lot (Gen. 14). Have the courage of Joshua, who took up arms against the armies of the nations. Have the courage of David, who, though being young and ill equipped, stood against Goliath in the name of the Lord and defeated him. Have courage against your knowing “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Our Confidence

How dare we stand up to Satan and his minions? How dare we stand up to one who deceived sinless Eve and Adam? How dare we stand up to the one who has deceived the nations and led them astray for generations? John Calvin said of this passage, “There is always much to enfeeble us, and we are ill fitted to resist.” Yet we resist not in our own names or strength. Our confidence is in the name of the Lord and in the strength of his might.

First, we are to be confident in the Lord Jesus Christ. How can we not be confident, courageous, and willing to heed the Spirit’s call to courage when we follow our victorious captain into battle?

It is this Lord who greets us in grace and peace (1:2).

It is this Lord in whom we were chosen from the foundation of the earth (1:4).

It is this Lord through whom we were adopted into God the Father’s heavenly family (1:5).

It is this Lord in whom we have been blessed (1:6).

It is this Lord who has redeemed us through his own blood (1:7).

Shall I continue? Are you confident yet?

It is in this Lord that we have an eternal inheritance (1:11).

It is with this Lord that we have been made alive (2:5).

It is with this Lord that we have been raised to sit in heavenly places (2:6).

It is in this Lord that we have been recreated for good works (2:10).

It is by this Lord’s blood’s that we who were once afar off have been brought near (2:13).

It is this Lord who is our peace (2:14).

It is this Lord who has abolished the law of commandments against us (2:15).

It is this Lord who has reconciled us to God (2:16).

It is through this Lord that we have access to God (2:18).

It is upon this Lord’s foundation that we as the household of God are built (2:20).

It is this Lord whose unsearchable riches have been preached to us (3:8).

Our confidence is in Christ, beloved. Can you see why? This is why Paul elsewhere says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Second, we are to be confident in the strength of the Lord’s might. What is this strength? It is the power and might of God in raising Christ. Listen to Paul’s prayers in Ephesians. Paul prays that we would know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19). What power is that? The power “that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). How high is that? “Far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (1:21). That power, you see, is toward us who believe! Notice also Paul’s prayer that we might be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” and that we “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s love in Christ (3:16, 18, 19). And how can that power cause us to be confident? “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (3:20).

Beloved, there is a spiritual war raging in this world. Engage your calling! Be courageous and confident in the strength of the Lord and his might.


Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.

Clarifying “The Log of Hyper-Calvinism” - Rev. Michael J. Schout

I’m writing this article out of a desire to clarify my position and intention in an article called “The Log of Hyper-Calvinism” in the March-April 2017 edition of The Outlook.

To start, it was never my purpose to address the issue of the extent of the atonement. As I affirmed then and do now, I wholeheartedly agree with the doctrines of grace, and specifically the doctrine of limited atonement, as summarized in the Canons of Dort. To quote: “For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father” (Second Head, Article 8). When Christ died on the cross, he didn’t just make it possible for men to be saved. He actually saved every elect person whom the Father chose before the foundation of the world (John 6:37).

My intent, rather, was to address the presentation of the gospel. Or to use a theological distinction, my aim was not the hidden will of God but the revealed. What has God revealed to us about his disposition toward sinners? Can we sincerely offer Jesus to the whole world? Can we make the claim that “Christ died for sinners,” that “Christ died for the world,” that “Christ’s death is sufficient for you,” and that “Christ offers himself to you”?

I believe we can. Again, the Canons are so helpful. “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel” (Second Head, Article 5).

The Scriptures teach that God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). And that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

I believe that God can desire something that he has not ordained. In other words, his revealed desire to save all men in no way conflicts with his hidden decree to save only the elect.

To requote Dr. Michael Horton in “Reformed Theology vs. Hyper-Calvinism,” “Here once again we are faced with a mystery—and the two guardrails that keep us from careening off the cliff of speculation. God loves the world and calls everyone in the world to Christ outwardly through the Gospel, and yet God loves the elect with a saving purpose and calls them by His Spirit inwardly through the same Gospel (John 6:63–64; 10:3–5, 11, 14–18, 25–30; Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:28–30; 2 Tim. 1:9).”

The result of God’s saving disposition, revealed in his Word, should be an enthusiastic commitment to declare, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

In my previous article, I made the following statement: “Christ died for your sins; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved!” My intention was not to suggest that Jesus died head for head for every person, but rather that he offers himself to every person and promises to save anyone who exercises saving faith in him. I affirm wholeheartedly the doctrine of limited atonement as well as the free offer of the gospel to all.

God has hidden from our limited minds who the full number of the elect are; yet he has clearly revealed his heart in commanding us to call all sinners to repentance and faith. “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20–21).

May Reformed preaching and evangelism never lead a sinner to conclude (on account of our presentation) that the good news is not for him. Rather, may he always know that Jesus came to save sinners of every stripe, and salvation is for any and all who call upon the name of the Lord!


Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at

A Spiritual Check-up for the URCNA (After Twenty-one Years)

It was 1990, and the synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) opened all offices to women. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for many conservatives who had battled liberalizing trends for more than twenty years. One church after another in North America seceded from the CRC. The future of denominational relationships was unclear, but many thought they needed to leave their former denominational home. With sorrow, tears, and regrets the exodus began.

In 1996, after efforts in the intervening years to explore new denominational relationships, the United Reformed Churches held their first synod. With relief, optimism, and a sense of continuing the confessional heritage of their prior denomination, work began on establishing a new church home for many congregations. Those first years were spent seeking an identity and navigating some doctrinal issues (e.g., missions, evolution, federal vision, ecumenical relations). Then came a time of settling into a rather steady existence (for more history, see

It has now been twenty-one years since the URCNA was founded. For some, like myself, the movement goes back well over thirty years. Where do we stand as a federation (or denomination; I will not argue this point)? How do we stand? Where are we going, if anywhere? What is our future? More importantly, how is our spiritual health? Thirty years ago and more the momentum to secession gained as many spoke of and identified the spiritual sickness of our former church affiliation. Laxity and looseness in doctrine and practice characterized so much of the denomination’s life. Ultimately the secession was a move for the health and future viability of the churches. So it is proper in my mind to stop and assess our current health, to take our spiritual temperature, to check the barometer of the atmosphere in the URCNA.

Throughout the Scripture there are warnings about and against being deceived about one’s spiritual condition. One example (of many) would be 1 Corinthians 6:9–11: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

I am sure you are familiar with these passages. However, there is also the danger of a church (or we might say, a denomination) being deceived. We see an example in Revelation 3:17 of Laodicea “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

I am not asserting that the URCNA is like Laodicea in all respects. I am saying that for far too many, in my experience over the years, there is a blindness about our spiritual condition and the spiritual dangers that are in our midst. I write out of a love for the URCNA and from a desire that we be a vital and vibrant body going into the twenty-first century, that we be used of the Lord for the gathering in of his elect, the furthering of his kingdom, and the glory of our Savior. I value, respect, and love those things in our heritage and tradition that make us unique in the Reformed and Presbyterian world. But I see and hear too many who are (apparently) woefully ignorant of the dangers on our horizon.

Let me begin with our history. Many in the conservative movement of thirty years ago (Concerned Members, Association of Christian Reformed Laymen, the Christian Reformed Alliance) rightly identified the issues that led to our separation. Those issues were numerous as chronicled over the 1970s and 1980s. Issues such as women in office, theistic evolution, the authority of Scripture, and tolerance of homosexuality rose to the top in prominence. It was correctly maintained that all the issues were because of an underlying, root issue—that is, that decisions about these matters were no longer being decided with Scripture as the ultimate and final authority. That was true and sad. And so the separation occurred, and soon the URCNA was begun. Yet here is where a lot of the troubles began, in my opinion.

We conservatives mistakenly identified the symptoms as the problem. We failed to recognize that they were but symptoms. They were not the problem itself. What was the real problem? Huge spiritual declension and decay had been going on for many years of which the issues were but the symptoms. Hence when the URCNA was founded we thought the cure had been found—a new denominational home. We no longer faced and fought with the issues that plagued the churches for so many years. “Hooray, all is now well.” But it was not! Why? Because the disease had been misdiagnosed and hence the cure was incorrect. It did not heal and cure the real problem, which was declension and decay of the spiritual life of our people.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that our people are some of the finest Christian people I ever have or will have the pleasure of knowing. I will chronicle some of the reasons why I believe that in this series. But that does not dismiss the fact that we mistakenly thought the issues were the problem rather than merely the symptoms.

The problem of spiritual declension and decay are still with us, and the signs are evident for any with eyes to see. That is what I want to deal with in this series. I do so with the goal of wounding with an eye to healing, exposing with an eye to edifying. I pray you will be open to examining our collective condition in the light of God’s Word. Jesus spoke to the church in Revelation, and he speaks to us today when he says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him . . . He who has an ear, let him hear” (Rev. 3:20–22).


Rev. Paul T. Murphy
is the missionary pastor of Messiah’s Reformed Fellowship (URCNA) in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC. He has been an elder and pastor for more than thirty years.


He’s Coming Again

To talk about the return of Christ is to invite a torrent of questions—you know them: questions about the millennium, the timing of Christ’s return, and the nature of the kingdom he will bring. These questions about Christ’s return can be helpful, and we will wrestle carefully with several of them in this and subsequent articles.

Because these questions are difficult to answer, they tend to lead to disagreement. Given our respective temperaments, conflict tempts us either to avoid the issue or attack our opponents. The net result is that the most significant event of human history can lose for us its crowning place in the Bible’s story of redemption. To say it differently, if Christ’s return is unimportant to us, or if we equate Christ’s return with our theory of the millennium, for example, we are not properly reading the climactic chapter of God’s story.

Recently one of our children finished a book only to discover that the last few chapters were missing. That’s a tragedy! But it would be equally tragic if, in the place of the last few chapters, someone had inserted a highly condensed summary of the ending followed by pages of technical literary analysis and point/counterpoint discussion of the story’s resolution. That’s sometimes how Christians reflect on the return of Christ. “What’s your view of the millennium?” isn’t a terrible question. But it is a terrible replacement for the wonder and awe we should experience when we reflect on how God will resolve this present age.

The return of Jesus as a historical event—the final historical event of this present age—cannot be understood apart from the rest of the history of this age. To put it briefly, this present age is a time of redemption.

The Context of Christ’s Return

That the present state of things is not all right does not need to be argued; we experience this fact in myriad ways. What is more challenging is to articulate why everything is wrong. If we could retell the story of the world from the beginning until now we would quickly realize that the two connected concepts of sin and God’s presence are at the heart of that story. Only when we grasp the relationship between these two realities can we understand Christ’s return.

Everything about the first two chapters of the Bible conveys that God was intimately present in the sinless world. God’s Spirit moved over the canvas of the universe, forming and filling the budding world with goodness (Gen. 1:2) So close was God to the world that his word produced substance and his breath brought life (Gen. 2:7). God made humans sufficiently like him so that they could uniquely enjoy his presence and experience his blessing (Gen. 1:26–28). When God spoke to Adam, his voice sounded friendly; everything he said was good and well-received. The end of the Bible’s story hints at what the beginning was like: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). History began with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and naked Adam and Eve, completely at peace with each other.

Notably, when the first humans sinned against God they lost the pleasure of his presence. Now, when “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden, in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8) Adam and Eve did not run to him. They ran from him. They “trembling fled from His presence” having made themselves “wholly miserable.”1 Having rejected God’s friendship, they turned their own way (cf. Isa. 53:6). Ever since then humanity’s most basic problem has been alienation from God. But in that dark moment God began to demonstrate a divine attribute that man had not yet known: mercy. God’s love toward his people never depended on their love for him but on his untainted goodness. And so, even when Adam and Eve began to despise God, he kept loving them. He pursued them in love, calling out to Adam (Gen. 3:9) the way a father cries out for his children who have become lost in a forest. When he found them he demonstrated the guilt of their sin so they would be able to appreciate the promises he was about to make. At the devil’s instigation they had traded their innocence for pain. Satan had driven the wedge of sin between God and his people. God would not overlook this evil. Instead, he would raise up an heir of Adam and Eve to destroy the devil and his works (1 John 3:8). God meant this promise to bolster Adam and Eve—and their believing descendants—to retain hope in a sad new world. Life would become hard (Gen. 3:16–19); God would seem less accessible (Gen. 3:22–24). But he would never be beyond man’s believing grasp (Acts 17:27).

Since the first sin people have yearned for God’s presence even when this yearning has become obscured by distractions. And since that first promise God has continued a work of restoration that he will complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6).

The rest of the Bible provides glimpses into what the restored presence of God will be like. God continued to retain a remnant of people who would “call on the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26) keeping alive hope that God had not altogether forsaken his world. God later chose Abraham to be the father of a special people who would show “all the families of the earth” the blessedness of knowing God (Gen. 12:3). God promised his people: “I will set my tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Lev. 26:11–12). The physical tabernacle, and the later temples, were physical testimonies of God’s promise to be among his people.

It makes perfect sense, then, that when God sent his Son—the Word become flesh, God born of a woman (Gal. 4:4)—to break the curse and open up a new and living way to God, that he “dwelt among us”; literally “he fixed his tabernacle” among us (John 1:14). God was again among men, preaching good news, healing up broken hearts, announcing liberty to captives, giving sight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:18).

But God was not yet ready to restore all things. Christ died like a sinner (2 Cor. 5:21), was raised in an imperishable body, and “was taken up” from his disciples into heaven (Acts 1:11) to continue working redemption until the time was right. In exchange for his physical presence, Christ left the Holy Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor. 5:5) that when our present tabernacles, our bodies, are destroyed we will “have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1). The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will keep his promise (2 Cor. 1:22) to again live with us in unrestricted freedom. The Spirit guarantees that God’s people will not miss out on their inheritance; not a legacy of possessions but a bequest of belonging, God’s prized possession is bought back from a foreign land by the blood of Christ (Eph. 1:14).

In the light of the whole history of redemption Peter preaches the return of Christ. “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:19–21).

“Christ,” says John Calvin, “hath already restored all things by his death; but the effect doth not yet fully appear.”2 The barriers between God and man have not yet been completely removed. But when Christ returns he will restore full fellowship between God and his people. Toward that end Christ works from heaven, even now, restoring spiritual fellowship and preparing a dwelling place for the restored family of God (John 14:1–4).

Set within this story, it should be plain that the return of the King is not a postscript to the story of this age; it is the main event toward which this entire age leans. Neither is it a theory to debate. It is a reality that should steel our hope in God’s reconciling work.

Within this overarching framework of God’s work of restoration, several notable characteristics of Christ’s return emerge.

The Characteristics of Christ’s Return

A Literal Event

Any attempt to allegorize Jesus’ promise to return to his people conflicts with the clear words of Scripture. The Gospel writer Luke, writing as a historian who had “perfect understanding of all things from the very first” (Luke 1:3), pictures the apostles “gazing up into heaven” (Acts 1:11) after Jesus had just been “taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (v. 9). The two heavenly messengers told them, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (v. 11). As physically as Christ had been with the disciples, and was with them no more, so would he return again.

At the opening of both his Gospel and his first epistle John insists that Jesus, during his incarnation, was literally, physically with his people so that he was seen with eyes, looked upon (1 John 1:1, 2, 3), and beheld (John 1:14). John likewise expected a literal, physical return of Jesus; “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (Rev. 1:7).

In Scripture Christ’s return is not a metaphor for a revival of spirituality or the advance of Jesus’ kingdom principles; a shouting, trumpeting Christ, riding the clouds (1 Thess. 4:16) is an unsuitable metaphor for a mere symbolic return. The hope of the gospel is not a restored sense of closeness with God but the actual “presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming” (1 Thess. 3:19). Faith desires to lay hold not merely of Jesus’ ideals but of Jesus himself. The only satisfying and comforting vision of the end is to “always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Only Christ’s literal second coming is salvation (Heb. 9:28).

A Certain Event

Because of its central place in God’s plan of restoration it is no wonder that Christ’s return is an event resolutely and repeatedly promised by God. Three times in the Bible’s final chapter Jesus promises, “I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). Jesus bolstered the faith of his troubled disciples with this promise: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). Not surprisingly, as the darkness of the shadow of death deepened, Jesus increasingly vowed to return after his departure (cf. Matt. 24:30; 25:19, 31; 26:64).

But even before Jesus’ first advent, God had promised to come back to his people. The New Testament reiterates a theme promoted by the prophets (e.g., Isa. 13:6; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10): The Day of the Lord will be a calamitous event for the nations particularly because the God whom they assumed to be afar off—never to return—will come near to avenge his people and his name (cf. Ps. 10, esp. vv. 11–12).

God has promised to return to save his people and judge his enemies. But he tells no man the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36). Some assume, by God’s delay in keeping his promise to return, that the Lord is “slack concerning his promise” (2 Pet. 3:9). They forget that God always keeps his promises, though they are a long time coming. They forget that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (v. 8). “As nothing outlasts God, so nothing slips away from Him into a past.”3 God is astonishingly patient. He is content to allow more time for the church to fulfill the Great Commission and for the unreached to repent.4

A Calculated Event

While it is not for us to “know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7), Scripture does speak of signs of Christ’s coming. These signs have always been evident during the last days, the time between Christ’s two appearances. But they will culminate in unmistakable tokens of Christ’s return immediately prior to the great day. In this way the signs of the end affirm that “the coming of our Lord is approaching” and encourage us to “be ready at any time to receive him.”5

First, before Christ returns “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (Mark 13:10; cf. Matt. 24:14) to the extent that the good news becomes “a sign that calls for decision.”6 Immediately before his departure Jesus charged the church to bring his story to the world (Matt. 28:18–20; Mark 16:15–16; Luke 14:46–49; Acts 1:8) so that salvation might come to “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).

Second, through worldwide evan-gelization the fullness of Israel will be saved. While God began his work of grace primarily among the Jewish people, “they have not all obeyed the gospel” (Rom. 10:16). With a heart overflowing with love toward his fellow Jews (Rom. 10:1), Paul uses Isaiah to express his disappointment over Israel’s general unwillingness to believe in Jesus: They are “a disobedient and contrary people” (v. 21). Still, insists Paul, “God has not cast away His people whom he foreknew” (11:2). Before Christ’s return God will “turn away ungodliness” from his first people, “and so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26). Despite differing interpretations, it seems that Paul firmly hoped for a large-scale conversion of the Jewish people before the return of Christ.7

Third, near the end of this age, God’s restraint of the devil will relax, resulting in the great apostasy and tribulation. John saw that, at the end of this age, “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations,” making war against God’s people (Rev. 20:7–8). Not only Jesus (Matt. 24:9–12, 21–24; Mark 13:9–22) but also Paul (2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Tim. 3:1–5) and John (Rev. 6:9; 7:13–14) expected God’s people, especially near the end, to enter the kingdom of God through great tribulation (Acts 14:22).

Fourth, before the true Christ returns from heaven, the spirit of antichrist, who has always been in the world (1 John 2:18; 4:3), will be manifested in a single person. During the unprecedented tribulation (Mark 13:19), “False christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (v. 22). A single “man of sin . . . the son of perdition” will be “revealed” as an imposter; him “the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (2 Thess. 3:3, 8).

A Relevant Event

Christ’s return is relevant exactly because it will be powerful and glorious (Mark 13:24–27). “Power” and “glory” are biblical shorthand for what makes God so unlike his creation; the terms contrast the weakness (Rom. 6:19) and vanity (see Ecclesiastes) of human life. At Christ’s coming believers will trade dishonor and weakness for glory and power (1 Cor. 15:43). A reunion with the God of glory and power (Rev. 19:1) is good news for inherently insufficient people.

Because of Christ’s promise to return we can face the disappointments of life with sure hope that God is fixing the mess we made; he has not given up on his people. We can wait for him (1 Thess. 1:10) patiently, trusting that he is neither impulsive nor sluggish. “Therefore, we expect that great day with a most ardent desire, to the end that we may fully enjoy the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”8


1. Belgic Confession, art. 17. 

2. John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 1:153.

3. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1958), 114.

4. Says Calvin, “And this is the reason why Christ doth not appear by and by, because the warfare of the Church is not yet full.” Commentary, 1:153.

5. William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1959), 113.

6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 698. 

7. For a brief elaboration on this thesis, see Cornel Venema, Christ and the Future: The Bible’s Teaching about the Last Things (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 59–65.

8. Belgic Confession, art. 37.


Rev. William Boekestein
happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke).


Four Reasons Why Christ Came to Earth

Rudyard Kipling called why one of the “six honest serving-men” who taught him all he knew. Why is a marvelous teacher because it helps us to identify the purposes, reasons, and meaning behind events that we observe. Christ himself frequently employed this “serving man” as he taught about his first coming. Learning the reasons for his advent will help us more deeply celebrate his birth and understand how it is connected with the rest of his life and why it is important for our lives. So why did Christ come to earth? Here are a few reasons.

To Become Like His Brethren

“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same” (Heb. 2:14; cf. vv. 15–17). Christ came to earth as God to partake of our flesh and blood. This is a profound statement. The baby in the manger had the same human nature as you and I, only without sin. Christ was born as the perfect human. As the perfect man, Christ represents the hope of imperfect men. Sometimes little babies inspire the hope of a fresh start. Much more so this little baby.

His incarnation says to us, “You cannot solve your problems on your own. You cannot attain perfection and peace by your own strength. I am what you need.” Christ did not come to earth simply to be our moral example. If he had, he could have come as an angelic being without our flesh and blood. Instead, he came to become like one of us so that he could raise us up to be like him. This purpose of Christ’s coming relates directly to his death, as Hebrews 2 says. Christ came to be like us so that his death would actually accomplish healing for us.

By faith, when we think of Christ we see ourselves in him. As we glimpse into the manger we can say, “There is my flesh and my blood.” As he grows and matures and continues to do the will of God, we can say, “There is my flesh and my blood.” As he goes to the cross and bleeds and dies, we can say, “There is my flesh and my blood.” When we see Christ seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, we can say, “There is my flesh and my blood” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 49). And when we see Christ return on clouds of glory to take us home to be with him we can say, “There is my flesh and my blood.” None of this would be true if Christ had not taken on our flesh and our blood and been born in a crude stable in Bethlehem.

To Bear Witness to the Truth

“Pilate therefore said to Him, ‘Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice’” (John 18:37). Christmas is a curious time of year because it tends to bring together people of various backgrounds. Even those who disagree regarding significant truth claims seem to mutually enjoy the so-called “Christmas spirit.” The amazing thing is that Jesus declared to Pilate on a world stage shortly before his death that he came “to bear witness to the truth” (and by implication to expose falsehood).

We live in a day where the existence of truth itself is questioned. Sometimes we may even wonder whether truth matters. When we think about Christ’s coming, we should be considering the truth claims to which Jesus’ birth testifies. He came to testify to the truth that all men are sinners and that God hates sin. But he also came to address the problem of sin through his righteous life and redeeming death. Notice how freeing this truth is. Pilate questions the very existence of truth, and his life bore the fruit of these doubts. He lived in fear of losing his position. He gave deference to the mad requests of the people against his own conscience. He disregarded the sane advice of his wife who urged him to have nothing to do with Jesus’ death. Pilate was in bondage because he didn’t know the truth.

When we look to Christ by faith, we will be overwhelmed by the radical truthfulness of God and the radical deception that is found in each of us. As Paul says in Romans 3:4, “Let God be true but every man a liar.” Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Christ came to bear witness to the truth that frees. Have you received his testimony?

To Bring Light to a Dark World

“I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46). There are few things in this world that are more precious to us than light. We take light for granted, but when it’s gone we notice. You may remember the last time you tried to find your way in the darkness. You probably held your arms out in front of you as you groped for something to take hold of (cf. Acts 17:27).

The world into which Jesus came was dark. There was little true religion being practiced, even by God’s people. The religious leaders had become little more than legalistic life coaches. A pagan nation, Rome, ruled over much of the world. Men and women lived without a light to guide them.

Every person is conceived into this world under this same darkness. We can’t see which way to go because of our spiritual darkness. We can’t make sense of our lives until the light of Christ shines into our hearts, leading us to God.

How appropriate that the birth of Christ was marked by a bright star and bright lights. The shepherds were watching their flocks by night. All of a sudden, in the midst of this darkness, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). Later, the magi were directed to Jesus by a bright star (Matt. 2:1–12).

A more glorious light accompanied Jesus’ life and ministry. The apostle John says that when the Word became flesh he beheld his glory (John 1:14). Shortly before his death Jesus said, “A little while longer the light is with you . . . while you have the light believe in the light, that you may become sons of the light” (John 12:35–36). In this same context, Jesus says, “If I am lifted up I will draw all peoples to myself” (John 12:32). When Christ was born, the light fell, as it were, from heaven. As Christ ministered throughout his earthly life, the light was held close to the ground. But when that light was lifted up, it shone for all to see! On the cross the spotlight of God was shining on his justice and love.

To Save Sinners

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). The first coming of Christ was the implementation of a rescue plan conceived in the mind of God from eternity past. He did not come to promote holiday cheer. He did not come to boost end-of-year sales or to be the central figure in a nativity scene. He came to save sinners. Paul recognizes who that sinner is when he says, “I am the chief of sinners.” It’s not enough to say that Christ came to save sinners. Each of us needs to affirm that Christ came to save sinners—and that I’m one of them!

Several years ago I sat next to the bed of a man who was in his last years in a nursing home. As we talked about his life, he began to painfully recall some of the sins he had committed. Beginning to weep, he blurted out, “I’m such a terrible sinner. I’m such a terrible sinner.” I said to him, “That’s wonderful!” He looked at me as if I had misunderstood him so I explained: “You are a terrible sinner. But that’s wonderful because it was exactly for people like you that Christ came to earth.”

Paul doesn’t just say that he is a terrible sinner. He says he’s the worst. Isn’t he exaggerating? No. Paul refuses to focus on the greatness of the sin of others. He will look only at his own sin. If he had been the only sinner in the world, Christ would still have had to shed every drop of that precious blood to save him.

Great sinners need a great Savior. And that is exactly what Christ is. Christ, says Hebrews 7:25, is able to save to the uttermost—that is, completely! If he can save a Paul who was a blasphemer and a murderer, then he can be a Savior to you. Are you a flesh-and-blood sinner in need of the light of God’s truth? Then Christmas is for you.

This article appeared in The Outlook, Nov/Dec 2012.


Rev. William Boekestein
is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI.


The Hands of God

When we think of the hands of God we often think of them as upraised in blessing.

Thus, God told Aaron to bless the people in his name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26, New International Version). That the hands were also raised in blessing can be gathered from the practice of Aaron in Leviticus 9:22, where after offering sacrifice, “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them.” Our Lord Jesus did the same thing upon departing from his disciples: “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them” (Luke 24:50). It is only natural, then, that when we think of God’s upraised hands, we think of them as bestowing a blessing on us.

However, the hands of God also represent much more than blessing people. God’s hands are said to be mighty and powerful. That’s how Joshua explains God’s backing up of the Jordan River so that Israel could cross over on dry land. He declares that “he [God] did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God” (Josh. 4:24). God’s mighty acts are not done simply to cause us to be filled with wonder and awe at them, though that also happens. There is a purpose to what God does with his powerful hands, namely, that “you might always fear the Lord your God.”

In contrast to God’s powerful hands being indicative of blessing, there is another important aspect which we must not fail to observe. The Lord’s hands can also be symbolic of opposition to his enemies and of strong punishment upon them. That’s how the symbolism is used in regard to the Philistines after they had captured the Ark of God and took it to Ashdod. Scripture tell us that “the Lord’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors” (1 Sam. 5:6). God’s hands, therefore, may be conveyors of his opposition to people and indicative of judgment to come because of their sins. Such a truth is made clear to us by the prophet Isaiah when he relates that because the people “rejected the law of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 5:24) and practiced injustice, “therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down” (Isa. 5:25). Regarding this text, E. J. Young comments: “The preceding judgments had all been insufficient. God’s outstretched hand, the symbol of His power and strength, will still carry out His purposes, inflicting new judgments beyond those which had already been executed” (New International Commentary on the New Testament, Isaiah I, 226).

The same truth is imparted to us in Isaiah 10:4, where the prophet, describing the consternation of the unjust in the judgment upon them, adds: “Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.” Again, Young comments: “This is not the end but the prelude to greater judgments” (ibid., 358).

When we speak of the hand of the Lord being upon one, we must always ask whether it is for blessing or for judgment and condemnation for sins. We need the Lord’s hand of blessing upon us to be the faithful people of God. Without God’s hand of blessing upon us, there is nothing that we do which will truly be a good work. Yet, thanks be to God, there is still hope for us if we detect his hand of judgment upon us. God’s purpose in punishment is that we may repent of sin and turn to him in faith. It is because God’s people “spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 5:24) and did not repent when he punished them that “his hand [was] still upraised” (Isa. 5:25)

When we think about the hands of God, therefore, we must also reflect on our own lives and behavior to determine how God’s hands are raised upon us. If we sense that his hands are raised upon us in condemnation of our sins, then we must heed the call to repent of sin and seek him anew. In Jesus, God’s hands are outstretched in human form, and he calls sinners who are under the judgment of God “to come to me, . . . and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). It is in returning to Jesus in penitence and faith that we “will find rest for our souls” (Matt. 11:29).

Let us, therefore, consider the hand of God as calling us to always fear the Lord. The psalmist says that God’s right hand is filled with righteousness. That’s why God’s people can rejoice and be glad because of his judgments (Ps. 48:10b–11).


Dr. Harry G. Arnold
is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI.
He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.


Marks of a Healthy Church: Biblically Grounded


In recent months my wife and I have been thinking a lot about healthy eating. There is no shortage of information on the subject, from Internet blogs and websites to magazines, books, and articles. And everyone seems to have an opinion! More fruits, less meat. More meat, less carbs. Coffee is bad, a little coffee is good, coffee is great, and so on. It’s all so complex.

Yet one thing every health expert can agree on is this: vegetables are important. Really important. Especially the green ones. So go ahead and help yourself to an unlimited heaping plate of Brussels sprouts and your doctor will be proud.

And water. Lots of water. I have yet to hear someone ask me, “Could it be that you’re drinking too much water?”

After extensive research, we have discovered that by far and away the two most important staples of a healthy diet are . . . green vegetables and water (I was hoping that Chick-fil-A would crack the top two, but it didn’t even make honorable mention).

In this series of articles I am attempting to highlight some of the most important characteristics of a healthy church. But don’t worry, they’re more exciting than green beans and H20.

Yet they are basic. No real surprises here. There is nothing that I’m going to say that hasn’t already been said, nor that will surprise you. But sometimes, like with physical health, it’s helpful to take a step back and remember what is most important.

Last time we considered that any healthy church must be shaped by the glorious gospel of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ. The gospel isn’t a slogan we tack on; it’s the essential message we preach, teach, and celebrate.

But there is more to a healthy church than this. In addition to being gospel-shaped, our churches must be biblically grounded. Of course, you could make an excellent claim that this should have come first. The gospel we treasure is revealed in the Word God has given.

What does it mean to be biblically grounded? Every Protestant church I know claims to be Bible-believing, and thanks be to God, many of them are. We should praise God for the unity we share with other denominations that elevate the Word of God above tradition and the philosophies of this age.

Yet my concern in this article is to consider what it means to be biblically grounded when it’s easier to say it than to be it.

Churches are spiritually healthy when the Bible is shaping them in at least the following three ways: when the Word is prioritized, known, and shared.

When the Word Is Prioritized

This year we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the start of the Protestant Reformation. Among the most important reforms was a return to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority.

Next time we’ll consider the importance of our Reformed confessions in shaping our identity as churches, yet a warning must be issued. Our confessions are not inerrant, infallible, or inspired by the Holy Spirit.

And while we all know this, there is a practical danger. This came to my attention several years ago when I was teaching a new members class. One of the attendees was a man who grew up in a confessionally Reformed church. As I was teaching on the relationship between the Scriptures and the confessions, he admitted that as a kid he was quite confused. His church preached through the Bible one service, and through the catechism the other service, so he figured they were equal.

Now I have no doubt that this would horrify the church where he grew up. I’m certain they had no intention of communicating this. Yet, this was his perception. He grew up concluding that the confessions were just as important as the Bible. And that’s a problem.

How do we avoid this same trap in churches where we use the Reformed confessions in our services and in our preaching?

Pastors, teachers, and parents need to be clear and intentional. We need to communicate what the confessions aren’t, what the Scriptures are, and the difference between the two. I’m not suggesting that they are pitted against each other; this would be a false dichotomy. We’ve never said that the confessions are authoritative, nor do the confessions themselves claim to be. Yet we must bend over backwards to teach our people, our kids, and our visitors that we prioritize the Bible. That it, alone, is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.

When Paul addresses Timothy, he doesn’t say, “In season and out of season, preach the catechism!” He says, “Preach the Word.” So as we use the catechism as a scaffold, let us make sure that it serves the Word, not the other way around.

Another way we ought to be prioritizing the Word in our churches is in our worship and discipleship. Our services and studies should be robustly scriptural. We should be singing Scripture (see the Psalms), praying Scripture, preaching Scripture, and hearing Scripture. Our Bible studies, too. While it might be appropriate at times to cover topics, there is nothing quite like studying the Word together. The Bible transforms our minds!

When the Word Is Known

We are living in biblically illiterate days, and the church is a big part of the problem. Dr. Albert Mohler, in “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem,” writes, “Fewer than half of all adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the disciples. According to data from the Barna Research Group, 60 percent of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.” He continues: “Secularized Americans should not be expected to be knowledgeable about the Bible. The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible. It shows.” He concludes: “We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.”

We can hold up sola Scriptura all we want, but the Bible was never meant to collect dust on our shelves or in our pews. Healthy churches are churches where the Bible is known, studied, examined, discussed, memorized, and taught.

To know the Word is to know God. If we don’t know the Word, we don’t know God. And if we don’t know God, we can’t be healthy.

Let me press this close to home. How well attended are our adult Sunday school classes? Our adult Bible studies? Our evening services? Have our adults graduated from needing to learn more about the Word? Or are we on cruise control now that we’ve made profession of faith? Satan’s trickery includes his ability to persuade lifelong church members that they already know enough about the Bible.

When the Word Is Shared with Others

The final indication that a church is truly biblically grounded is when the the Scriptures are faithfully and eagerly shared with others.

The Word has a way of multiplying. The more we study it, the more we want to share it. Like dining at a great restaurant or visiting the Grand Canyon, we want to share our experience with others.

If the Bible bores us, we’ll have no interest in telling others about it. But when it interests and captivates us, we can’t help but want others to bask in its glory.

Healthy churches have fathers sharing the Word at home in family worship. Healthy churches have women gathering around the study of the Bible. Healthy churches send missionaries who love reaching the lost with the gospel. Healthy churches have Sunday school teachers who are eager to pass on the faith to the next generation. Healthy churches know the Word, and the God of the Word, and want others to know God in his Word, too. And healthy churches treasure the opportunity to make the Word plain to visitors, to explain why we do what we do as churches, and to point them to the hero and center of Scripture, Jesus Christ.


We all want to be Bible-believing. But these can easily become empty words. In churches where Scripture grounds everything, the Word is prioritized, known, and shared. May this be our prayer: “Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).


Rev. Michael J. Schout
is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI.
He welcomes your feedback at

Remembering Rev. Arthur Besteman May 23, 1933 – October 1, 2017

 “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” 

–Philippians 4:19

I first heard of the Rev. Arthur Besteman when I was a seminary student more than thirty years ago. He had a call to First Christian Reformed Church in Rock Valley, Iowa, where my wife, Kathy, and I were on summer assignment back in 1985.

We showed Rev. and Mrs. Besteman the parsonage and talked about the wonderful people in that wonderful northwest Iowa town. Three weeks later, I read his letter of decline to the congregation. His name came up again in 1991. After serving a church in Ireton, Iowa, for five years, the Lord led me to accept a call to western Michigan. While still packing all our worldly goods in Ireton, the congregation extended a call to Rev. Art Besteman. Once again, Kathy and I showed Rev. and Mrs. Besteman the parsonage and talked about the wonderful people in that wonderful northwest Iowa town. Three weeks later, I read his letter of decline to the congregation.

I still have both of those letters—along with several others that I read in various other vacant churches that had called Rev. Besteman to be their minister. By the time I left northwest Iowa, I thought, “Who is this man who seems to be wallpapering his office with letters of call?”

And then we met.

It began simply enough. Road trips with Rev. Besteman and his good friend, Rev. Ed Knott, to Dyer, Indiana, where Rev. Besteman often served as president of the board of trustees for Mid-America Reformed Seminary. To listen to those two seasoned ministers talk was not only educational; it was absolutely amazing for a young man just five or six years in the ministry.

Then there were the Concerned Member meetings, Alliance meetings, Reformed Fellowship meetings, and more. The knowledge these men had of church history, their love for the church of Jesus Christ, and their love for the Lord was truly genuine and obvious.

Rev. Besteman frequently served on the board of Reformed Fellowship. He began to write in The Outlook already in the early 1960s lamenting the lack of gospel preaching in many Reformed pulpits. Rev. Besteman was instrumental in starting the federation of United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA). He was the first minister to be deposed for leaving the Christian Reformed Church. Years later, he would confide in me his fear that the URCNA was slowly becoming more and more legalistic and less and less focused upon preaching about God’s grace freely given through Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

When Rev. Besteman retired, he served as the interim pastor at the Covenant URC in Kalamazoo, Michigan, while they were vacant. I followed him to Kalamazoo after serving the Faith URC in Holland, Michigan. Rev. Besteman followed me to Faith URC as their interim pastor during their vacancy.

While we lived in Kalamazoo, Kathy and I would have lunch with Rev. and Mrs. Besteman on a regular basis. His boisterous laughter would fill the restaurant. He would comment on some current event in the local and universal church only to receive a mild rebuke from his wife, Audrey.

“Art!” she would say, but her shoulders would rise up and down as she tried to stifle a giggle.

It didn’t take very long for me to realize that the reason that Rev. Besteman had declined all those calls was because he, along with Audrey, had a dear, dear love not only for the Lord but also for the people that God had called them to undershepherd.

And then there was his preaching.

Readers of this article who heard him preach may recall the wonderful catchphrases he used. When he was about to make a dramatic point, he would say, “Hold on to your pews!” When he proclaimed the good news of the gospel—faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone—he would act startled and then add, “I’m not making this up! If I were to say this on my own you would accuse me of heresy, but it’s all right here! It’s right here in the Bible!”

What made Rev. Besteman an amazing preacher was not that he could explain the great doctrines of the faith in deep theological terms that no one understood. It was not because he was a man of great stature with a great imposing pulpit presence. No. It was because his preaching was simple. He preached to the seventy-two-year-old lady in the back pew and the seven-year-old child sitting with his parents. “Wyb,” he would tell me, “there’s a heartache in every pew.”

He met those heartaches head-on. He met their concerns, their griefs, and their worries and gave the perfect answer to them all. He gave them the gospel. Straight up, pure and simple, he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. He would bring people in need to the cross of Jesus Christ. That was always his bottom line.

Ordained in 1959, Rev. Besteman proclaimed the grace of God, shown to a sinful human race in the death of his Son on the cross, for more than fifty-five years. He was emphatic about that. Every sermon would reflect that.

His favorite verse was Philippians 4:19, “My God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

It was an incredibly fitting verse for a young boy who lost his father when he was two years old. After her husband’s death, Rev. Besteman’s mother moved back to her parents’ home, and little Arthur grew up living with his grandfather and grandmother. As a young boy who grew up in severe poverty, he saw all his needs supplied by the Lord.

The Lord called him to the ministry. While serving in Leota, Minnesota, he was in correspondence with a minister’s daughter named Audrey Hondred. Soon they were married, and the Lord led them to serve several churches in western Michigan. They were encouraged to buy a condo while serving Beverly URC in Wyoming, Michigan. By the time Rev. Besteman retired it was pretty much paid for. He would frequently remind us that God had supplied his every need.

Social Security took care of most of his needs, but he would tell me that it was really the income he received as interim pastor in Kalamazoo, Holland, Walker, and Eastmanville that tided him over from month to month. He would add, with tears in his eyes that—YES—God had supplied his every need.

It wasn’t that he and his wife weren’t frugal. Shortly after their forty-fifth wedding anniversary my wife and I were visiting at their condo. Even though Rev. Besteman didn’t drink coffee, we would have the hottest coffee ever. It was made in a coffee percolator that he and Audrey had received as a wedding gift.

While we were visiting, the coffee percolator quit perking. It had perked its last cup of coffee. Mrs. Besteman said, “O dear.” She always said, “O dear.”

Rev. Besteman said “Wait a minute.” He ran downstairs and returned with a coffee percolator still in the box. “We got two of them as wedding gifts,” he said. We had coffee in a brand new forty-five-year-old coffee percolator. Rev. Besteman’s comment: “God is so good to us.”

Through his entire life, Rev. Besteman’s constant refrain was “God is so good to us.”

Rev. Besteman knew that it was not only our physical and material needs that God supplied; he faithfully proclaimed that our spiritual needs were met by God’s Son, as well. He preached it every week not just for the seventy-two-year-old lady in the back pew; not just for the seven-year-old sitting with his parents; he preached it because he knew it was for him, too. He needed to be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. And God had supplied that need for him.

Rev. Besteman’s last pulpit appearance was on January 7, 2016, at the ordination service of Rev. James Oord at Community United Reformed Church in Schererville, Indiana. His charge to this young man entering the ministry was the same advice Rev. Besteman had given to ministers young and old for decades: “Jim, I’ve been a three-point man all my life. You know that I’m a three-point man, but I can only think of two points for you to remember: Preach the gospel and love God’s people.”

That little sentence—preach the gospel and love God’s people—exemplified the life and ministry of Rev. Art and Audrey Besteman.

This past May, Kathy and I had the joy of visiting with Rev. Besteman at the care facility where he was living. He knew this would be his last home and was selling his condo. I asked what he was going to do with all those wonderful sermons. He said he had told his daughters to shred them.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my wife tells me that the look of horror on my face startled Rev. Besteman, and he asked, “Why? Would you want them?”


Rev. Besteman was ordained in 1959. More than fifty-five years of ministry. Fifty-five years of sermons. Two boxes. All his sermons were in two boxes. Some of the early ones from his first charge in Leota, Minnesota, are typed out on paper older than many of our readers. Most of his sermons are little one-page or half-page outlines. All of them bring the reader to Jesus Christ.

And sometimes, out of these two boxes, when I pick up an old sermon or an old outline for my morning devotions, I can still hear him say, “Hold on to your pews! It’s all right here in the Bible!”

Well done, good and faithful servant.


Rev. Wybren Oord
is the former editor of The Outlook. He is the pastor of Grace Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB.



Letters from Inmates Who Receive The Outlook and/or Books from Reformed Fellowship


An inmate who was transferred to another prison facility in the state wrote,

I am finally settled in and boy is it hot here. No climate control!! But God is going to use this too for his glory and my good! :) I wanted to let you also know that I just received a letter from a pastor down here in the OPC. He said that you sent him my way. Thanks!! I’ll be sure to let you know how things go.”

He added a PS: “Please keep me in prayer for the following:

1.That all of those whom I’ve hurt so badly over my life will forgive me and be reconciled to me.

2.That God helps and allows me to overcome all things that are standing in my way to being closer to him.

3.That God help me to be the man that he wants me to be and grant
me the wisdom that I need to help those that he has put in my path.
(So many hurting people.)”


Another inmate, a woman, wrote to ask for books that would be of help to her. She wrote, 

Almost three years ago God saved me during a class I was taking on the doctrine of grace. In an instant I saw how big my sin is to our holy God and how much bigger his grace is. Since then God has given me a desire to know him and his Word more.”

A letter was sent to her informing her that books are being sent along with a subscription to The Outlook, thanks to contributors to a designated fund for that purpose. She replied,

“Thank you so very much for your letter. I am humbled and thankful for the forthcoming books. :).”

She added that the class on the doctrine of grace was taught by an inmate friend who has since been released. 

Some of my Christian sisters and myself have been able to continue to introduce and teach the basics to other offenders on a one-on-one basis. My desire is to one day help other broken women after my release by sharing the hope I have in me, God willing.


Another inmate describes his sinful past which resulted in losing his family and being sentenced to prison for life. He wrote, 

“It so happens my first two Christian friends in that level 4 prison were of the Reformed faith and they helped me understand the gospel and discipled me. Once I was saved I began to read everything Reformed, especially regarding the atonement. I was introduced to the Westminster Confession of Faith in 2010, and the Three Forms of Unity in 2012, and I hold to these. In time I grew in Christ and by grace began teaching Reformed Bible study in 2013, and have a great love for teaching the truth for God’s people.”

He goes on to say that he met a Reformed Christian inmate and they have become good friends. There are 750 inmates in their yard with whom they share Reformed literature, including The Outlook. He says, 

“I am always trying to be a good steward of God’s blessings and hope to use The Outlook, not only for my personal edification but as an instrument to bring sound doctrine to many men here.”

Current Issue: July/August 2019
Volume 69 Issue 4

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Listen to a 42-minute audio lecture by Dr. Carl Trueman
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This lecture was given at the annual meeting of Reformed Fellowship held November 7, 2008, at Trinity United Reformed Church, 7350 Kalamazoo Ave SE, Caledonia MI.


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