Over the past few years I've engaged people in conversation about the assurance of salvation. In my own circle, it's because I've come into contact with people from the Netherlands Reformed Church, as well as people who've come into contact with people from the Netherlands Reformed Church. The NRC is a small denomination (one website claims there are only 26 congregations in North America), yet in my area, if you're Reformed, chances are you've come into contact with these folks.
Trying to track down online information specific to this group can be a little tricky. If you rely on the such things like Wikipedia (shame on you!) you could easily be confused by the entries on Netherlands Reformed Churches and Netherlands Reformed Congregations. The former claims of these churches, "Some are very traditional; others are more heavily influenced by contemporary evangelical practices, having replaced traditional Dutch organ music with praise bands. Also, the synod of the Netherlands Reformed Churches have recently allowed women to serve as deacons, elders and pastors, although most local churches don't allow this." The later entry says, "Most of the member churches have services two or three times per Sunday.... During worship the congregation remains silent and respectful. Women wear headcoverings in accordance with 1 Corinthians 11." My comments here are probably in regard to the later described Dutch churches. I can assure you, the NRC I'm describing wants nothing to do with praise bands or allowing women to serve in church leadership.
In what follows below I'm going to state upfront that I don't really have anything positive to say about the NRC other than this: her members appear to be very hard-working (predominantly) Dutch people that show an outward respect for the Christian faith.
First Encounters With the NRC
I first came into contact with NRC kids back in high school. There were two large NRC families in my town. Both were involved with farming and agriculture, Where I live, this is like putting Little House on the Prairie in an area headed towards Hill Street Blues. Some of the NRC families were in my area when it still had farming and agriculture, so their businesses have been around a long time.
In school, the NRC kids were typically like everyone else. There was nothing noticeably different about them except for one thing: they didn't watch TV (nor did their families admit to owning TVs). So, if they were to come over your house, chances are, they would be glued to your TV. Nowadays, the NRC kids in my area probably aren't in public school anymore because they've built their own private NRC school. They also probably have smart phones and computers to bypass the TV restrictions.
One of my first jobs as a teenager was stocking shelves in a large fabric shop. I was warned by the kid vacating the job to be careful around the manager, a "religious" woman named Priscilla, especially in regard to language. For instance, I learned that saying something like "jeez" or "gee wiz" was a blasphemous way of saying "Jesus Christ." The woman was one of the meanest people I recall interacting with as a kid. There was never a smile, and however I did the job, it was never good enough. When she found out I was from a Christian family, it didn't make a dent. I have a faint memory that this woman was from the NRC.
Another thing I recall about the NRC folks was that they were strict sabbatarians. My mother used to do weekend arts and crafts shows with an NRC woman, and like Chariots of Fire, she would never do a show on a Sunday. From my teenage perspective, these Dutch folks were strict and little weird, but other than that, I never gave them much thought.
Fast forward a number of years later to when as an adult I joined a Reformed church. Like many people with convert-zeal, I was ready to slay anything that even remotely smelled like Arminian or Roman Catholic theology. There was a "getting to know you" church luncheon I attended. In conversation with one of the long-time church members, she explained she did not take communion. Startled, I asked her if the church had strict closed communion practices. It didn't. As we went back and forth, I explained how the Reformers went to war with Rome so people could take both the bread and the cup. Now here was an old Reformed woman who told me she took neither. Turns out, she was an NRC refugee. Even though she had left the denomination, she still had not escaped from the theology of the denomination. She had been raised with the notion that communion was taken only when one had assurance of salvation, otherwise one is partaking in an unworthy and damning manner. This woman did not have assurance of salvation, even after being in a Christian church her entire life.
The NRC Sunday Service
Fast forward again to last summer. After some badgering from a friend, I actually attended an NRC Sunday morning service. I sat in one of the first pew rows up front, which was a mistake (I did not pick the seat). It was unfortunate I ended up so close to the front because part of the experience of visiting a church is seeing how the people respond to the liturgy. Are they sleeping? Are they on the edge of the pew waiting for God? I've been told by a few ex-NRC folks that many of the people attending the services are mentally checked out. Perhaps they are, I don't know. The people around me didn't really display any noticeable emotions. Even their young children did not make a sound during the entire service. I didn't see anyone carry a Bible into the church (I brought mine).
The people attending were dressed sharply, with the women all putting on what only can be described as a hat fashion show. I had not realized how fashionable and different women's hat-wear could be. I was informed by my friend that a shirt and tie was fine, suit jacket not required. Yes, it turned out I was one of the only people not wearing a suit jacket. So there I was, without a suit jacket, carrying a Bible. I might as well have worn a Led Zeppelin t-shirt carrying a Hello Kitty lunchbox.
You walk into a completely quiet church. No one made a sound, not even in the foyer. When the service starts, the elders and minster walk out from a side door at the front. All the elders stand in the front row while the minister approaches the pulpit, gets on his knees, and begins praying. The elders appear to be praying as well, and one by one they sit down, and the minster steps up into the pulpit. This sort of respect for a church service can either be positive or negative depending on your perspective. For those who see it as a positive, it's refreshing to see the leaders of a church praying (apparently for the service). On the other hand, for those who see it as a negative, such behavior could show a spiritual elitism. In other words, the men in charge of the church have assurance of salvation and have had their prayers heard by God- unlike you, the sinner in the pew, who hasn't really repented of sin and achieved assurance of salvation.
The minster went into the pulpit and leads the services, hymns and prayers. Then he read from the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 2:
Q. 3.Whence knowest thou thy misery?
A.Out of the law of God.
Q. 4. What does the law of God require of us?
A. Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt. 22:37-40, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Q. 5.Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?
A.In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
I thought that this reading of the Catechism was simply a part of the liturgy. Yes it was, but I had not realized it was the entrance into the sermon. It turns out that every week the sermon begins with a reading of something from the Heidelberg Catechism, and then for the next hour, the Catechism reading is expounded on. That's the sermon. The context for the sermon is the Catechism, not a passage of Scripture. For the next hour, the minster expounded on the depravity of man, rarely mentioning Jesus, rarely mentioning even a Bible verse. I saw no one around me crack open a Bible or even the Heidelberg Catechism. In fairness to the congregation, there really wasn't a need to. Bible chapters were not be expounded upon, nor were verses being pastorally exegeted.
The point made over and over again in this Catechism sermon was how depraved we all were, and how now is the time to cry out for God's mercy. If I were to just type my previous sentence one hundred times, that was the sermon in essence. At one point, my mind began wandering and I started looking up at the lights above me. The minister said something like, "This message is making some of you uncomfortable, and you're looking around." Yep, he caught me. I was uncomfortable for sure, but it was the discomfort of getting the point and being a bit bored.
NRC and Church Membership
After the service, everyone leaves as quietly as they came in. No one approached us as visitors as we were leaving. Certainly the whole "seeker-sensitive" movement can go overboard, but these folks took it in an entirely different direction. It turns out that simply visiting from another church isn't necessarily a good thing. As I understand it, the NRC folks are not to visit other churches while a member of the NRC. So by extension, that I was a member of another church and I was simply visiting shows that neither me nor my church was as serious as the NRC. On the one hand, one can't help but have some respect for people that take church membership so seriously. On the other hand, they appear to take it too far. While I'm not sure of the pedigree of the following information from this ex-NRC member, he states interestingly:
The practical implications of this vow are immense. If one makes a public Confession of Faith it means that they can never become a member of another church or denomination for the rest of their life. Even if a stronger, healthier church in your area existed that better fulfilled the spiritual needs of you and your family, it would not matter. In order to fulfill the vow that you made before God you are bound before Him to remain within the NRC fold. Furthermore, a single person desiring to get married either must find another person within the church who also has said the vow or someone outside the church who is also willing to make the vow. If there is no agreement in this area then the relationship must end no matter how compatible the two individuals are.And also:
After dialoging extensively with one NRC pastor about the vow, he shared one very revealing comment that shed a great deal of light on the issue. One of the reasons why the vow is necessary, he said, is that “People change churches as often as they change clothes.” I fully agree with this pastor that ‘church hopping’ - moving from church to church often for superficial reasons - is a lamentable characteristic of our day. The lack of commitment and devotion to one church body and a fetish for unbiblical elements in a church (coffee bars, entertainment of various sorts, etc.) often drives people from church to church seeking the latest thrill. This must break the heart of all who know and love God’s Word. The purpose of the Confession of Faith vow, according to this pastor, is to help instill a degree of devotion to the NRC church family as well as a measure of spiritual life.Given my interactions with the NRC and her former members, I wouldn't be surprised that these statements are true. I know one former NRC person who married an Italian woman, but as I recall, she began to attend the NRC before they were married. The bottom line for me is that I respect their desire to have people committed to their church membership, but it goes a bit too far for me. The NRC gives off the impression of claiming to be the real church while other congregations simply pretend to be real churches.
The NRC and Assurance
So with that background of personal experience, let me try to explain what I think is going on. These folks do exhibit outward piety and reverence for God. They appear to be very concerned about the holiness of God and the sinfulness of sin. Kudos to that.. in theory.
In order to have assurance of salvation, their lives have to display holiness (so as to be evaluated by the church leadership) and they also have to have an inward testimony of God's Spirit assuring them of their salvation. If one of these is missing, you're not entitled to assurance of salvation. From a website I quoted previously, an ex-NRC member explains two characteristics of "true" NRC conversions:
Experiential Calvinism - This phenomena can also be described as “experimental religion”, “experimental faith”, or “experimental divinity”. All refer to the same thing and have a long history in Reformation theology. In a nutshell, these terms point to the importance of feelings and emotions in a genuine expression of faith in God. One author describes it as “examining or testing (from experiri) experienced knowledge by the touchtone of Scripture…” Counterfeit faith, on the other hand, either leaves emotions out (intellect only), or, if emotions are present, bases them upon false knowledge. The NRC views itself as one few remaining denominations preserving this essential truth handed down from the Reformation.
Presumptive Regeneration - This is closely related to experiential faith. This phenomena refers to the danger of falsely assuming that one is saved when in fact they are not. The NRC is deeply grieved over the superficial nature of contemporary evangelicalism that so often has a false peace and joy growing out of a low view of sin and salvation. Many, according to Alexander Comrie, become Christians “with a skip and a jump” often resulting in multitudes of unconverted people joining the church. Dr. Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) is widely considered to be a leading figure introducing presumptive regeneration into the Dutch Reformed church. His view of salvation was related to his view of infant baptism. “[Kuyper] taught that God can and often does regenerate his elect as infants” and that “covenant parents are to presume that their covenant children are regenerate until they give prolonged and conscious evidence in their mature years that they are unregenerate.” Unfortunately, this leads many into a false sense of assurance regarding their salvation.What some will probably consider mean-spirited, I refer to this sort of conversion description as a cosmic meatball experience. That is, one necessarily has to be hit with some sort of supernatural experience that produces an immediate feeling. Who determines if the experience and feelings are true? Why, I assume it's the leadership of the NRC. The thing is, for all their emphasis on the sinfulness of sin, the NRC cosmic meatball paradigm is fraught with practical problems, particularly for someone who really takes the sinfulness of sin seriously. That person realizes that even their best efforts are tainted with sin, that all their experiences are tainted with sin. This person can scrutinize in a such a way that the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man is a chasm that can never be crossed and every experience doubted. Sin is so insidious. Even for such people that continually scrutinize themselves, this itself can become sinful. Louis Berkhoff stated long ago,
There are always large numbers of serious seekers after assurance in our churches, who are tossed to and fro by doubts and uncertainties. Some of them appear to be chronic doubters, who occasionally create the impression that they take a secret delight in their doubts and regard them as a mark of special piety. [Berkhoff, L. The Assurance of Faith (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939, Electronic edition].Second, the cosmic meatball paradigm sets up the same sort of problem that Pentecostals have in regard to plain ol' regular Christians and "Spirit-filled" superior Christians. In those circles, there are the elite Christians speaking in tongues and prophesying, and then there are the regular Spirit-less folks praying to have the same sort of experience. Now, the Spirit-less folks are doing what? Coveting to be Spirit-filled like the "real Christians." Similarly with the NRC paradigm, spiritual elitism has to necessarily follow. There must be some people who wish they could be a Christian like the person hit by the cosmic meatball experience. In other words, the very paradigm being used leads to a sinful elitist spirituality. I would say it probably produces jealousy (or even anger) in the have nots, and pride in the haves.
The problem with outward displays of works and holiness as a determiner for NRC assurance also has some problems. Certainly, there is a balanced way in which Christians behave and act a particular way that is to be expected from someone wishing to have their life conformed to the image of Christ. On the other hand, if I scrutinize my best works, guess what I can find? Sin, and lots of it.
Possible Answers on Assurance
As far as I understand my own Reformed heritage, there have been tendencies to see works as the assurance of faith. I've sat though sermons that are more law than Gospel, sometimes thinking, where is the Gospel? Is the Gospel just... try harder? On the other hand, the last thing I want is blatant antinomianism. Balance, balance, balance: An easy word to say, but not always an easy ideal to achieve. I'm a simple guy at church: I need to be convicted of sin, comforted by the Gospel, and admonished to be daily conformed to the image of Christ. If any of these three aspects is missing, balance, for me at least, has not been achieved.
Obviously the entire thrust of this blog entry is that the NRC is off-balance. In dialog with ex-NRC members or those struggling with assurance, here's the basic answer I give. If someone is looking inward at themselves and outward at themselves, well, I think a truly honest look will lead to despair and lack of assurance of salvation. This may get me in trouble with some of my Reformed brethren, but if there's anything I've concluded from my Luther studies, it is that assurance of salvation primarily comes by looking outward toward Jesus Christ. When I look inward, I see my best efforts tainted by sin. When I look outward, I see my best efforts tainted by sin. When I look outward towards a perfect righteousness that is not my own, I find comfort in the cross and the righteousness of Christ, producing an inward experience of assurance that however it is I feel, or whatever it is I've done, the promises are those coming from God. In my worst moments of unbelief (and yes, I have them), I pray simply to be covered in Christ's righteousness because therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. I say the Westminster Larger Catechism is entirely correct when it says of assurance that it "may have it weakened and intermitted, through manifold distempers, sins, temptations, and desertions; yet are they never left without such a presence and support of the Spirit of God as keeps them from sinking into utter despair." In my moments of "utter despair" I remind myself that I am covered in a righteousness that's not mine, and I hold God to his word: What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God- through Jesus Christ our Lord!