As Reformed Christians, we give thanks to God that we stand in the line of the great 16th century Reformation. But when we trace our spiritual heritage back to the Reformation, we recognize that there are a number of intervening links in the chain. Not only did Christ reform his church in the 16th century, but he has carried on that work of reformation in the 500 years since then. The watchword of the church of Christ on this earth is and must always be: “Reformed, and always reforming.”
One of the links in that chain is the Afscheiding (Secession), the reformation of the church of Christ in the Netherlands beginning in 1834. The Reformed Church in the Netherlands had apostatized in the 200 years after the Synod of Dordt, but through the Afscheiding Christ brought her back to the pattern that God had ordained in his word. For this work Christ used a number of God-fearing men, men whose names ought to be familiar to every student of church history: De Cock, Scholte, Brummelkamp, Van Raalte.
And Van Velzen.
Simon van Velzen was born on December 14, 1809, in Amsterdam. He was baptized and raised in the apostatizing state church, which he was destined by God to reform.
With his five siblings, Van Velzen received his early education from his father, who ran a boarding school in the family home. Early on it became evident that young Simon had been given outstanding gifts and abilities by God, so his parents destined him for the ministry, eventually enrolling him at the University of Leiden to prepare for this calling.
As a young man, Van Velzen lived at times like his riotous and ungodly fellow-students. But God brought about a drastic change in his life. Before he could begin his studies at Leiden, the southern part of the Netherlands (modern day Belgium) revolted, and the country was plunged into war. Dutch soldiers were called up, and Van Velzen volunteered to fight. During the interludes between battles he spent his time reading God’s word and other Reformed books. Van Velzen later described the effect this had on him: “While I was examining myself and looking for salvation, I searched the Word of God as I had never done before. And then to me the way of preservation was opened, then to me the Savior – who was before hidden from me – was revealed with clarity in my heart, and I found in Him my righteousness and strength. I felt myself also to be in full agreement with the confessions of the church, and I found there my own faith expressed.”
Van Velzen returned to the University a changed man. He befriended several other godly young men, and together this “club” studied God’s word and the Reformed confessions and grew in their knowledge of and love for the Reformed faith.
After he graduated in the spring of 1834, Simon began his ministry in a small village in Friesland. Van Velzen faithfully carried out his labors as a minister of the word, and the people there loved and respected him. But he did not keep quiet about the problems that were going on in the denomination; he raised objections to the false doctrine that was being promoted. This did not sit well with the state church, and disciplinary actions were taken against him in the fall of 1835. Finally, on December 11, 1835, Van Velzen seceded from the church along with twenty-eight other members.
Due to the shortage of ministers among the churches of the Afscheiding, Van Velzen was called to pastor the whole province of Friesland. For over three years he served the Frisian churches devotedly, traveling constantly through the countryside preaching the gospel and organizing new churches. During those early years Van Velzen endured much persecution: worship services he led were broken up by the authorities, mud and insults were slung at him and his family, and outrageous fines were levied against him.
In 1839 Van Velzen left Friesland and accepted a call to serve the congregation in Amsterdam, where he labored for the next fifteen years.
Van Velzen was a gifted and powerful preacher. It was said of him that “he has inspired enthusiasm, awakened a warm spirit in many hearts, and poured soothing oil on stinging wounds.” He preached wherever and whenever and to whomever he could. He preached in church buildings and in barns, in open fields and in boats on the water. He preached early in the morning (once at 4 a.m.) and late into the night. He preached to small groups of people and to crowds of 500 people or more. He preached in large cities and in small hamlets, tirelessly proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When the churches of the Afscheiding established a seminary in 1854, they recognized Van Velzen’s gifts and chose him to be one of the first professors. Van Velzen served as seminary professor until his retirement in 1889 when he was eighty years old.
During his lifetime, Van Velzen married three different times, but each wife was taken from him in death. From these marriages, he received a number of children, and these children were present when on Good Friday, April 3, 1896, Van Velzen breathed his last, extolling God’s “wonderful grace.”
Let’s look briefly at the specific areas in which God used Van Velzen to bring reform.
First, Van Velzen brought about reform in the church’s worship. Specifically, he opposed the use of Arminian hymns in the worship of the state church. In addition to the Psalms, the church had introduced a number of hymns, some of which had an Arminian slant. Van Velzen was opposed to these hymns. He recognized that the use of them opened the door to false doctrines being sung into the church.
One story best illustrates his opposition to these hymns. One Sunday evening a large crowd of people came to hear him preach. The sanctuary was bursting at the seams, so a decision was made to hold the service in the cemetery outside of church. When it came time to sing, Van Velzen announced the required hymn, but he quickly noticed that a number of people began to walk away in disappointment. He immediately told the congregation that they were no longer going to sing the hymn but were going to sing Psalm 68 instead. The people who had left came filing back among the gravestones, and the congregation sang this psalm with tremendous gusto. The very next night, Van Velzen’s wife was giving birth, and the local doctor was summoned. After the child was born, the doctor turned to Van Velzen and told him that the previous night he could hear the words of Psalm 68 rolling over the countryside to the neighboring town where he was attending to another patient. So loudly and lustily did the congregation sing that night! More than anything else, this event convinced Van Velzen that it was not right to force hymns upon his congregation.
Second, Van Velzen brought about reform in the area of church government. One of the issues that plagued the churches of the Afscheiding was whether or not to use the Church Order of Dordt. The Synod of Dordt not only produced the Canons but also wrote a church order. Van Velzen and his fellow reformers wanted to return not only to the doctrines of Dordt but also to the polity of Dordt. So at their first Synod, held in secret in March 1836, Van Velzen and the other delegates decided to make use of the old Church Order of Dordt.
A third area of reform in which Van Velzen was involved was the area of doctrine.
First, Van Velzen was committed to the confessions produced by the church at the time of the Reformation: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. His love for the Reformed faith was evident at his classical exam. During the course of the examination, Van Velzen expressed his belief in the doctrines of election and reprobation. His examiners were astounded by what they heard, “Where did you learn that? You certainly were not taught that by the professors at Leiden?” To which Van Velzen replied, “Certainly not! The professors never taught me that, but that is the teaching of the Canons of Dordt!”
Later in his ministry, Van Velzen penned a work on “The Value of Symbolic Documents [i.e. Creeds].” “In opposition to the dry, comfortless opinions of adversaries,” Van Velzen wrote, “the symbols [creeds] present the most glorious truths; they provide weapons against attacks; they provide warnings against errors; and they have already been a blessing for thousands and thousands of individuals.”
A second instance of Van Velzen’s efforts to the reform the church in her doctrine was in a controversy over the doctrine of the covenant. In 1861, two ministers published a book on infant baptism and the covenant. In this book they introduced the idea of a conditional covenant made by God with all the children of believing parents. Van Velzen opposed this false doctrine, and in its place taught the truth of an unconditional covenant established with the elect. But try as he might, Van Velzen was not able to eradicate the noxious weed of a conditional covenant from the churches. The result has been the development in our own day of the conditional covenant teaching of the Federal Vision.
Van Velzen’s greatest strength was that he had an unwavering and resolute character. Many do not consider this to be a strength, but rather criticize Van Velzen for being “unyielding, obstinate, and domineering” and charge him with being the chief troublemaker in the churches of the Afscheiding. Admittedly Van Velzen exercised his zeal in a wrong way at times, but this man was a staunch, unwavering watchman on the walls of Zion. God gave to him a heart-felt zeal for the truth and a desire and ability to defend that truth against all attacks. “No! No!” he later wrote, “Not even one truth that has been entrusted to the church may be abandoned! If the Forms of Unity are pure, biblical doctrine, and if the truths therein contained are necessary and beneficial unto salvation, then complete devotion to them cannot be unwholesome. We must instruct and warn with all longsuffering, but we must never tolerate error.” One writer later described him as a man who “desired to maintain, defend, and develop the old Reformed theology. He held fast the line of the Reformation without deviating an inch.” He was “the Calvin-figure” of the movement.
This “Calvin-figure” ought to be of interest to Reformed believers in this country. Although he never set foot in America, Van Velzen influenced the Reformed men and women who came to this country from the Netherlands. Members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, as well as other Reformed churches, trace their spiritual ancestry to Van Velzen.
Although we are thankful to God for using this man, our interest is not in the man himself, but in the work of God through him. The question that comes to us is this: Are we truly thankful? Is our gratitude a matter of lip service, merely building the tombs of the prophets and garnishing the sepulchers of the righteous? Or are we truly thankful for the work of God in reforming his church? Are we willing to fight for the truths that the reformers maintained and developed? Are we ready to teach them to our children and grandchildren and pass them on to the next generations? Are we zealous to live these truths out in our daily walk in this life?
This is a sign of true children of the Reformation!