Robert P. Swierenga, "Fruits of the Reformation in West Michigan"
Dr. Robert P. Swierenga is Research Professor, A.C. Van
The Reformation first and foremost was a religious awakening to bring the Roman Catholic Church back to its biblical foundation. The main themes of the Reformation are the five solas: sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone), solu Christus (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). Good works cannot save, and no church traditions, however old and treasured, can take priority over biblical truths. Martin Luther, professor of theology at Wittenberg University, while teaching the book of Romans was converted, and under the leading of the Holy Spirit he came to the conviction that salvation was by faith alone (not good works), through Christ alone (not Mother Mary, saints, or angels), and by grace alone (not papal indulgences to buy forgiveness of sins).
The Reformation began in Luther's
study and classroom, spread to the local university and church when he nailed
the 95 theses (statements) to the chapel door, and then to
The Reformation is the reason for
the progress and prosperity of the West, as compared with the backward
development of the East and South. This religious reawakening made possible the
rise of political and economic freedoms and birth of modern science. "Real
science" began only once in world history, in post-Reformation
Let's bring the Reformation
heritage closer to home and consider how it impacts our lives in
Why do you like living in
You can say this is a special
region because it was shaped and formed by its Reformed heritage. The Dutch
brought a culture centered in the churches, high moral values, a strong work
ethic, entrepreneurial skills, and a deep commitment to Christian education.
This region boasts of fertile farmland, great recreational opportunities, many
business opportunities, good schools from kindergarten to college level,
churches on nearly every corner, cultural activities galore, specialty shops
and eateries on
Most important, the Reformed faith
still plays a role in balancing community life. Charles Colson noticed this
when he came for the dedication of the De Vos Worship Center at
No wonder people from other parts
of the country come here to live. The
everything. Of all the factors that make the
Since the Second World War, the
Holland-Zeeland area has become diversified in culture and religion. Sunday
shopping is more common since an
Despite the growing diversity,
Ask anyone here who's lived in the
east side of the state or in other metropolitan areas. They'll note how
What Reformation principles have shaped our culture?
I have identified seven:
1. The belief that true religion is, at heart, a life that seeks to please God. True religion is based on sound doctrine and teaches about sin, rather than sweeping it under the rug. True religion is not wishy-washy salve for itching ears, but the truth of God's word.
2. The belief that one's work is one's calling. God calls
each person to a vocation in life and equips one to fulfill that vocation.
Moreover, no calling is too insignificant to serve God. "Whatever your
hands find to do, do all to the glory of God." A firm sense of calling
nurtures a strong work ethic ("he who does not work shall not eat"),
integrity in one's work, healthy labor-management relations, regard for fellow
employees and customers (the golden rule), and a commitment to earth-keeping
(God's charge to Adam--"till the garden and keep it"). Mike Koppenol,
director of the Christian Labor Association, headquartered in
one's calling requires individual initiative and responsibility. On Labor Day
2003 local political leaders, including
The recipient of the 2006 Small Business Person Award selected by the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce was Doug Ruch, the CEO of Fleetwood Group, a 50-year-old company with 145 workers that manufactures furniture and electronic parts. Ruch, a member of a Reformed church, told the Holland Sentinel reporter: "We are a Christ-centered, employee-owned business…. A wonderful byproduct of this is an extremely positive corporate culture. That culture inspires a level of commitment among our team members that gives Fleetwood a very real competitive advantage."
3. The belief that our money is really God's money, lent for
our use. Dutch Reformed folks have a "saving mentality," a giving
heart, and a strong sense of stewardship.
Benevolence has always been central
here. From the beginning, the Dutch Reformed churches cared for the poor,
widows, and orphans. A report in the local newspaper, De Hollander, in 1854
noted that the Dutch churches did not abandon their poor to the public
authorities, but supported them without murmuring, despite the heavy burden.
Generous giving is a habit in
Philanthropy is common too.
Successful businessmen willingly gave back to their communities when God has
blessed them. Edgar Prince, the man more responsible than any other for shaping
Ed and Elsa ran Prince Corporation the same way, according to Christian principles. When Elsa sold the business to JCI after Ed's sudden death, she shared the proceeds with all the employees. Depending in length of service, some factory workers received checks in the six figures.
4. The belief that God instituted marriage and the family as the primary social institution, that he commanded spouses to be fruitful and multiply, and that he designated fathers as the head of the family and the ones who must answer on the judgment day for the souls entrusted to their care.
In a current series of articles in Christian Renewal, by Rev. Patrick Edouard of the United Reformed Church of Pella, entitled the "Four Reformed C's," the first C is Children. "It is impossible to overstate the importance God places on children and posterity in the covenant," Rev. Edouard writes. "The future of the covenant people was [and is] literally and inextricably intertwined with fertile godly wombs." In the Old Testament, to be childless was the ultimate curse, because one's line became extinct and the covenant promises went unfulfilled.
Modernists 35 years ago came to
believe the lie of Paul Erlich's book Population Explosion, that
overpopulation would destroy the world. But now the biggest problem in the West
is under-population. The West is dying off, especially in
The ZPG zealots did not foresee
that in thirty years, the major world problem is just the opposite--too few
children rather than not enough. One-fifth of men and women 40 years and older
are childless today in the
While pagans never marry and kill their babies, Reformed Christians must value marriage and children above all. They need to "shun the world's philosophy of family planning and opt for a covenantal outlook," Rev. Edouard says. You may find this advice too radical, but you can agree with his closing prayer: "When we are called home to glory, may our best contributions to God's kingdom be our covenant children."
The baby-bust mentality has deeply impacted American politics. A recent study of the 2004 presidential election revealed a startling fact, as reported by Dennis Praeger on a recent afternoon talk show on AM 1260 "The Pledge" radio station. A nationwide study found that Democrats carried ALL fifty electoral districts with the highest proportion of unmarried and never married persons, while Republicans won ALL but one of the fifty districts with the highest proportion of married couples. Clearly, the major political parties hold diametrically opposed positions on the vital importance of marriage and family, on the value of babies, and the role of government tax and regulatory policies to nurture and protect marriage and the family.
Feminism, with its destructive attitude toward marriage and men, has taken a huge toll. The majority of children in America grow up in single parent homes, and boys are vanishing from college classrooms. Feminist activists have so trumpeted discrimination against women in education that the pendulum has swung 180 degrees and women are becoming dominant in the classroom. The current philosophy stresses group learning over leadership and individual responsibility, skills are more important than knowledge and wisdom, and generalization is better than specialization. These ideas all deprecate masculine virtues and tout feminine ones. Boys are portrayed as bullies on the playground and late learners who can't sit still in class and concentrate without drugs like Ritalin. Girls, it is said, read faster, verbalize better, work better in groups, and are eager to please. Feminists refuse to differentiate between the sexes. They reject the creation order: "So God created man in his image, male and female created He them," two halves of one whole, but with Adam placed in charge of creation and the first family. Reformed Christians reject all modern ideologies that destroy the family.
5. Commitment to serve the poor and sick, or "social action." The Apostle James wrote: "Faith without works is dead. Show me your works, and I will show you my faith." No people give of their time and money to charity like Reformed Christians. President Bush in May 2006 honored recipients of his Volunteers for Prosperity Initiative. The Grand Rapids Press reported on the nine local citizens honored in the city. All nine were Dutch Reformed, most graduates of Calvin. They had carried out volunteer work in South and Central America, Asia, and Africa (Haiti, the Philippines, Kenya, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Sudan, Darfur, and Uganda).
In the Holland-Zeeland area one finds the Holland Deacons Conference, Good Samaritan Ministries, Kids Hope, Project Rehab, Love INC, Bethany Christian Services, Jubilee Ministries, and in Zeeland, The Bridge and Water Missions International. This list is far from complete. Bethany, with offices in 32 states and 13 countries, is the largest private adoption agency in the U.S. The work of Bethany is why the Holland area has a long history of international adoptions, especially from Asia. Reformed churches have also stepped up to sponsor refugees, notably those from Indo-China after the Vietnam War. The result is Laotian and Cambodian Reformed congregations in Holland. Hispanic congregations are flourishing too, ever since Reformed churches and lay members began ministries in the migrant camps in the 1950s.
CROP Walk in West Michigan has been the biggest walk in the state for the last twenty years, raising $2.5 million. This year again, the Holland-Zeeland area surpassed the $100,000-mark for the nineteenth straight year. More than sixty churches and organizations participated. Similarly, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids leads the state in organ donations.
In 1996 the State of Michigan launched Project Zero, a welfare-to-work program that aimed to get every able-bodied adult, except mothers with young children, into the workforce. When the program began, Ottawa had 767 residents on welfare and only one-third (239) had jobs. Within a year, Ottawa County claimed the honor of being the first to reach "zero." Kent County followed two years later; it was first among the most populous counties. Why? Because dozens of churches, community agencies, and some forty businesses teamed up to train and hire the hardcore unemployed. Meijer hired many.
6. Christian education. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Reformed churches since the early nineteenth century in the Netherlands established Christian schools, and the immigrants came with a commitment to such schools. Since 1900 the Holland and Zeeland Christian schools have provided a Christ-centered education. Holland Christian in 2006 enrolled 2,000 students, about 20 percent of all students in the Holland-West Ottawa school districts. Unfortunately, the numbers are declining every year. Only a few years ago, Holland Christian enrolled 25 percent of all students.
7. Economic and political freedoms rest on the rights of the individual. The Reformed faith fosters this, because it teaches that God saves sinners one by one, and individuals will stand before the Judgment Seat of God someday to answer for their deeds. The genius of the American way of life rests on the high value placed on the individual. Socialism has never gained much traction as a political philosophy in America because it rests on collectivism and statism. It ends up being coercive and destructive of individual initiative and responsibility.
Politically, the state needs a vital church. The naked public square that so many have lamented in recent years is the result of a decadent church. Irrelevant Christians produce irrelevant churches, which results in co-opted members who go along to get along and leave public life without a faithful witness. Reformed Christians are politically involved citizens. Since the 1950s the path from West Michigan to the Michigan statehouse had often begun at Calvin College. In 1999 eight Calvin alumni were serving in the legislature--this from a college whose total alumni are less than the current student enrollment of the University of Michigan. The Calvin lawmakers use words like "calling," "service," and "mission" to explain their motives.
As Reformation Christians in West Michigan, in obedience to Christ we must recommit our talents and energies to the glory of God and the building of His kingdom. This includes sharing the gospel by our words and living the gospel by our deeds. Miroslav Volf, in an article in the October 2006 issue of Christianity Today ("The Church's Great Malfunctions"), says it best: "For Christian faith not to be idle in the world, the work of doctors and garbage collectors, business executives and artists, stay-at-home moms and dads and scientists, needs to be inserted into God's story with the world. That story needs to provide the most basic rules by which the game in all these spheres is to be played. And that story needs to shape the character of the players."
Are you shaped by the great Reformation solas, the beliefs that sparked the rebirth of the church in Western Europe, and moved across the Atlantic Ocean in the next centuries? That spark has died out in its birthplace and in much of the western world. We are a remnant that still honors the Reformation and enjoys its benefits in our community. God requires us to remain faithful until He comes again. May he find us busy--not idle, and living faithfully according to the Bible and the principles that Calvin derived from it and clearly taught. It all stems from his motto: "My heart, I give, promptly and sincerely."