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 dubious doctrinal decline, wandering into either questionable teaching or even outright heresy. And believe me, I don’t use the term heresy lightly. The narratives are diverse, and the motivations multifarious, but in all, their tragic departure brings me distress for their spiritual lives and for the churches they serve.
What should 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, dangerous error? While I don’t have an exhaustive answer, we should at least rule out completely writing them off as lost and beyond hope.
Heretic to Hero
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.” (The Person of Christ, 9-10)
Early in his theological career Kuyper flirted with Modernism of the worst sort—a theology he would later recognize as a form of Arianism—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 over. 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 Kuyper at the center of one of the most powerful revivals of orthodox Reformed thought in Europe.
So what actually brought about Kuyper’s theological and spiritual renewal? While Kuyper’s conversion seems to be surrounded in a bit of pious mythology, at the human level we can discern a few key factors. (See James Bratt in Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, 38-51.) For one, in the midst of early vocational crisis, reading the British novel The Heir of Redclyffe pierced his soul, exposing his pride and unbelief, resulting in the embrace of true faith. From there, it seems the slow, steady work of pastoring the simple, orthodox believers of his congregation in Beesd apparently gave him some godly grief.
Finally, another key factor seems to have been the effect of watching prominent Modernists like Allard Pierson take Modernism to its logical conclusion—abandoning the church itself. Thankfully Kuyper chose the strong foundation offered in orthodox Reformed teaching instead.
Ultimately though, as Kuyper himself would confess, the change came about through the grace of God who is sovereign over human hearts and minds.
Hope to Pray
This little story demonstrates 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:
1. Narrative — We are not static creatures. 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, as a student soaking in the modernist theology of Scholten, Kuyper was a heretic. And yet, through the complex tapestry of providence he ended a stalwart defender of the faith. We must be careful not to freeze living, breathing people in our mind, believing their current theological location is their permanent residence.
2. Grace — It all comes back to grace in the Christian life. No matter how grave the error, God can work in the lives of those who currently are turned against his gospel. Look at the story of Paul turned from ravager of the church to arguably her greatest apostle. Or Augustine, who was wandering in Manichean and Platonic error, when the grace of God called him out of darkness into a fruitful service of the church. Doubtless, countless others with similar stories could be added to this list. Indeed, isn’t that the story of what he did for you when you were in your unbelief?
Don’t get me wrong. False doctrine needs to be confronted, rejected, and exposed. Pastors who go off the rails and start preaching things contrary to Scripture, especially central gospel issues, ought go through the proper disciplinary procedures instituted within their denominations or church bylaws. The health of the flock and the truth of the gospel is too precious to be trifled with. It’s supremely unloving to allow the teacher in error to continue to propagate a false gospel.
Still, as Christians convinced of the gospel of grace, we need to believe that beyond confronting error, in the economy of God, we must forcefully pray for the wandering. Let’s not forget that “prayer enlists the help of him who can move heaven and earth” (Ryle). Who knows which of those walking in error today are being prepared for a mighty work for the gospel tomorrow?