Over the last few years I’ve been saddened to see a number of teachers and preachers of the word of God, along with friends in the pews, begin a sad doctrinal decline, wandering into either questionable teaching, or even outright heresy. (And believe me, though I’ve given the issue a bit of thought, I’m not one to quickly throw out the ‘h-word.’) The narratives are diverse, and the motivations multifarious, but in all, there is a tragic departure that brings me to distress for their spiritual lives and sometimes, for the churches they serve.
What do we do in these cases? What should we think when someone we know departs from the truth of the faith “once for all delivered” and veers into what we believe to be serious, and dangerous, error? While I don’t have an exhaustive answer, I think one course of action we ought to rule out categorically is completely writing them off as lost and beyond hope.
G.C. Berkouwer tells this story of theological giant, Abraham Kuyper:
When Kuyper referred to Modernism as “bewitchingly beautiful,” he doubtlessly recalled the fascination which the modernism of Scholten had exerted on him as a student. He acknowledges in 1871 that he too had once dreamed the dream of Modernism. And when at the age of eighty he addressed the students of the Free University, he harked back to the “unspiritual presumption” which had caused him to slip. “At Leiden I joined, with great enthusiasm, in the applause given Professor Rauwenhoff when he, in his public lectures, broke with all belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.” “Now when I look back,” he writes, “my soul still shudders at times over the opprobrium I then loaded on my Savior.” Kuyper concludes his lecture with a reference to the Incarnation of the Word and points out the unfathomable cleavage between the church of Christ and Modernism. Now that endorsement of Rauwenhoff’s negation and criticism has given way to adoration of the Son of Man, Kuyper recognizes in Arianism the image of the Modernism of his own day. “One merely has to write other names and other dates into the history of the Arian heresy, and, provided one takes it in broad outline, the course of Modernism is repeated.” –The Person of Christ, pp. 9-10
Early in his theological career Kuyper flirted with Modernism of the worst sort, and could even applaud the rejection of that most central, pivotal of gospel truths: the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s remember what the apostle Paul tells us:
For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:16-19)
This is no ancillary, disputed, or adiaphora truth that Kuyper was fussing about with, then. This is the definition of denying the truth of the Gospel in the most pernicious way possible–much in the way some false teachers had in Corinth. And yet, in later years, we find this man at the center of one of the most powerful revivals of orthodox Reformed thought in Europe.
What this little story demonstrates, is that, while heresies need to be forcefully rejected, by the grace of God, even heretics can repent. To believe otherwise is to neglect two pertinent realities:
- Narrative – Persons are not static realities. We have storied identities full of development, regression, and plot turns galore. That’s what we see on display is the story of Kuyper. For all intents and purposes, Kuyper was a heretic. He ended a stalwart defender of the faith. Doubtless, countless others could be added to this list.
- Grace - No matter how grave the error, it seems that God can work in the lives of those who currently are turned against his gospel. Isn’t that what he did for you when you were in your unbelief?
Don’t get me wrong here. I think false doctrine needs to be confronted, rejected, and exposed. I also think that pastors who go off the rails and start preaching things contrary to the scriptures, especially central gospel issues, ought go through the proper disciplinary procedures instituted within their denominations or bylaws. The health of the flock and the truth of the gospel is too precious to be trifled with. What’s more, this isn’t even only for the good of the broader flock–it’s supremely unloving to allow the teacher who is in error to continue to propagate a false Gospel.
Still, what I would argue, is that beyond being confronted, in the economy of God, heretics, or those wandering into error ought also be forcefully prayed for. Let’s not forget that, “prayer enlists the help of him who can move heaven and earth” (Ryle). I don’t know what human means finally brought about Kuyper’s theological and spiritual renewal, but I do know that whatever it was, it came about through the grace of God who is sovereign over human hearts and minds. Who knows which of those walking in error today are being prepared for a mighty work for the Gospel tomorrow?
Soli Deo Gloria