THE CHURCH’S DUTY OF REMEMBERING

Few of us would ever think of remembering as being a duty. This is especially so since forgetting seems to be so human. After all, when one fails to keep a promise or to do a duty, the excuse of forgetfulness seems to be so easily acceptable. However, the fact that remembering is indeed a biblical duty can be easily shown. We are, for example, commanded to (1) remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it Holy (Ex 20:8); (2) remember our Creator in the days of our youth (Ecc 12:1); (3) remember the Lord—of how He delivered His people (Neh 4:14); (4) remember the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Tim 2:8); (5) remember the Lord’s death (cf. Lk 22:19); (6) remember Lot’s wife (Lk 17:32); (7) remember those in prison (Heb 13:3; Col 4:18); (8) remember those who have rule over us (Heb 13:7); (9) remember the poor (Gal 2:10); and (10) remember how we had received the Word of God (Rev 3:3; cf. 2:5).

It is true that there is a great number of nuances surrounding the verb ‘remember,’ whether in English, Greek or Hebrew. However, every nuance that we may consider will have the element, more or less, of recollecting or keeping in mind some important facts. In other words, there are some things which, as believers, we should not forget and which we should be reminded of often. We must, for example, not forget the Lord’s suffering and death on our behalf, and we must especially be reminded of these gracious acts of God whenever we observe the Lord’s Supper. But, apart from remembering the redemptive work of God, and specific persons or classes of persons, it is important for us, too, to remember the Lord’s providential dealings with us corporately as a church.  

Standing at the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses called to the people of God, of old, to remembrance. He called them to remember God’s faithfulness and deliverance (cf. Deut 2:30; 3:3; etc.). He called them also to remember their past sin and rebellion against God (Deut 9:7). And he called them to remember God’s acts of temporal judgements against them (Deut 24:9). In so far as Moses’ instructions were for the Church under-age, we may conclude that it is a right and proper duty for the church today to also remember the providential work of God. This is especially so since this duty of remembering God’s dealing with His people has entered into the Psalter as a subject matter for corporate praise in every age: “Remember his marvellous works that he hath done; his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; O ye seed of Abraham his servant, ye children of Jacob his chosen” (Ps 105:5–6).

How should we exercise this corporate duty of remembrance today? Let me suggest three ways:

Recounting the Past Year

Firstly, it is right and proper for a local church on her anniversary to remember and recount how the Lord has blessed the work. However, she must bear in mind that the church is no ordinary organisation. A business organisation may measure itself by its productivity, profit margin, share price, staff turnover, etc., etc. A fraternal or special interest society may assess itself by how many new members joined in the year, or how much it has achieved by way of contribution to the field of interest, or how much it donated to a particular cause. But, in the case of the church, her development must be measured rather differently. She must measure herself against the normative standard of the Word of God. This being the case, she should not use membership growth as a measure of her success because it is God that gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6). She may indeed look back and praise God for the increase, but any display of figures will tend to pride and self-exaltation, and must be avoided. In the same way she should not publish how much she has contributed to missions, and use it as a measure of success, for the Lord teaches us: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Mt 6:3). Again, she should not boast about how many evangelistic tracts were given out or how many missionaries were sent out, for slaves cannot boast of what they did for their master (cf. Lk 17:10).

What remains for the church, by which she may measure herself, is whether she had been faithful to the Word of God and the duty required of her as a church. It is true that faithfulness cannot really be absolutely quantified. Nevertheless, the church may assess if she had acted biblically in particular issues or crisis situations. She may also compare her zeal with previous years, in particular areas. Some fitting statements of assessment could be: “We thank God that there has been an increase in attendance at evening service”; “We need to work harder at bringing our unbelieving friends to hear the Gospel”; or, “We need to work at punctuality and attendance at prayer meetings”; or “We need to repent of our general lack of concern and love one for another”; etc.

Whatever may be the case, any recounting of the church in the year past must be made with the goal of praising God for His marvellous work and also to spur the church to greater faithfulness unto Christ. No report presented ought to give any occasion for self-glorification, whether corporately or individually. Never are we called to remember our achievements or how great we are. We are called to remember God. We are called also to repentance when we have fallen into sin (cf. Rev 2:5, 16).

Learning from History

Secondly, the duty of remembering should be exercised with the aim of learning from the past. We live in a day of individualism in the church (cf. 2 Tim 3:1–5), in which many are interpreting the Scriptures or introducing new practices without regards for earlier accepted interpretations and restrictions.

This may be the case because the average believer today have no idea at all of, nor is concerned with, the fact that Christianity was quite different in earlier days. But experience has shown us that this disdain and contempt of historical theology is not confined only to the “average lay person,” it is true also of those who ought to know.

Yes, it is indeed a virtue to be Berean Christians, seeking always to see if what is taught is in line with the Scriptures. However, there is a tendency among modern believers to take the attitude,—whenever their own interpretation of a text of Scripture differs from the earlier accepted interpretation,—that the older interpretation is wrong until proven right. The same goes for church practices. What is being done in the church must be right, and any attempt to introduce restrictions based on past practices would be considered with suspicion. J.C. Ryle made a similar observation more than a century ago:

There is an Athenian love for novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten paths of our forefathers. … The tendency of modern thought is to reject dogmas, creeds, and every kind of bounds in religion. It is thought grand and wise to condemn no opinion whatsoever, and to pronounce all earnest and clever teachers to be trustworthy…. Stand up for these great verities [of Christian orthodoxy] and you are called narrow, illiberal, old-fashioned, and a theological fossil! (cited in David W. Hall, The Arrogance of the Modern: Historical Theology Held in Contempt [Oak Ridge: Calvin Institute, 1997], 19).

Modern Christians would do well to remember that in general most of the notable earlier theologians, especially from the time of the 16th century Reformation on, spent much more time in the Scriptures, knew more of the original languages, were more pious, and had read and meditated on more theology than the vast majority of us. It would do well, therefore, to give much weight and preference to these earlier interpretations and practices. This is especially if the practices or interpretations were agreed in confessional consensus.

Finding our Roots

The third way in which we must apply the duty of remembering has to do with finding our roots. We must remember that a local church, unlike any secular organisation, must not be viewed as beginning only a year before its first anniversary. The church must look further back. Even if she refuses to acknowledge that the Church began really with our first parents, Adam and Eve, she must trace her history back to the Early Church during the days of the Apostles. In other words, every local church ought to remember that she has at least about 2,000 years of history behind her. This, however, poses a problem, for it is a well-known fact that the history of the Church has developed along numerous paths. And it must be confessed that, since Christianity must be normatively founded on the Scripture, some of the paths have veered from the truth.

Thus, when a local church seeks to find her roots, she should not simply trace backward chronologically. That has only a very limited use. It would be much more helpful for the church to find her roots theologically. That is, she should seek to be fitted into a branch of the history of the Church, which she believes to be faithfully on the old path. Someone of note has well said: “Knowledge of history means choice of ancestors.” This is quite true, especially for a church. But our purpose for finding our roots must be more than a mere choosing of who we want to be our ancestors; it must involve, rather, an understanding of the development of theology and a discernment of which path of theological and ecclesiastical development is most true to the Scripture. For example, in the area of Christology, all Protestant churches would happily trace to the council of Chalcedon of AD 451. On the other hand, Jehovah Witnesses would claim Arius to be their father in this area.

The availability of Creeds and Confessions in the Reformed tradition makes it much easier for us to identify our theological roots. For example, as a church, we would adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646. This would mean that we would largely agree with the theological development that converged in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Thus, for example, we would agree to the theology of sovereign grace propounded by John Calvin, and the five points of Calvinism systematised at the Synod of Dort in 1618. On the other hand, in identifying with the 1646 version of the Confession, we are also saying that we disagree with later amendments and revisions to the Confession, such as was done by the Bible Presbyterian Church of America. And again, since Dispensationalism and the Covenant Theology of our Confession are at variance in important areas, then, by affirming our Confession, we are in effect saying that Dispensationalism has veered off the old path.

Why is it important for us to find our theological roots? It is important because we believe that theology must be self-consistent since it is derived from the Scriptures, which is the Word of the holy and immutable God. True theological developments are not additions to, or evolution of, the theology in Scripture, but the clarification and systematisation of theology. Thus, though we can expect minor correctives in any tradition of theological development, we should generally find some consistency within each system. Let me put it this way: doing theology is in some sense like assembling a large jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are the theological elements that may be derived from the Scripture by proper rules of interpretation. In the ideal situation, the pieces fit in very well and a beautiful and logical picture emerges, by which we may know what we must believe concerning God and what duty He requires of us. However, it is also possible to derive, through erroneous interpretation, spurious pieces of puzzle which may appear to fit into the assembled fragment. The only problem is: the exposed edges produced by the specious piece will not allow other true pieces to be fitted in nicely. It would only allow other specious pieces to be fitted in. So more specious pieces have to be added. The result is obvious: a picture that is part true and part false which can give a very wrong impression to the beholder.

Today, through the different developments in the history of the Church, there are many pieces of incomplete puzzles which churches and theologians are working on. None of these puzzles can claim to be already completed, though, I believe: the family of puzzles which calls itself Calvinistic and Reformed is more complete, has much fewer specious pieces and produces the most glorious view of God.

In finding our roots, we are, as it were, seeking to find which incomplete puzzle we want to identify ourselves with. Some may be trying to reconcile a part from one puzzle with parts from other puzzles, such as those who are trying to marry Calvinism with Arminianism, or Covenant Theology with Dispensationalism. But we do not think it wise, though occasionally some points from other puzzles may help us to understand better the difficulties in our own.

Conclusion

A year has passed since PCC started. But more than five years have passed since the formation of this church begun in the hearts and lips of a few individuals—in the form of prayer. Some of what is embodied in this church was not in the expectation of those who first begun praying. It is as if the Lord is saying: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isa 55:8).

As we remember the struggles many of us faced, we must thank and praise the Lord for His providence in leading us together to constitute as a branch of the Body of Christ. As we reflect on the year past, we must thank the Lord for His blessings and helps in sustaining and preserving us despite our many shortfalls. But we must not stop here, for we must also thank the Lord for His sovereign governance of His Church so that a faithful witness may be traced from the Early Church to the 16th Century Reformation to the Westminster Assembly, unto which we can safely attach ourselves historically and theologically. And we must thank the Lord too that, through the printed pages, we may sit under the instructions of His servants whom He had raised in ages past.

JJ Lim