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What It Means To Be "Reformed"
Prof. Herman Hanko
"Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3).
That is the Word of God - the Word of God to the church. In the light of that Word of God, what it means to be Reformed is an important subject to discuss.
It is generally well-known that the word "Reformed" has come to have such a wide variety of meanings in our day that in fact it has come to mean nothing at all. There are churches which call themselves "Reformed" which are as far from Reformed as the east is from the west. They are unable to give an account of what the Reformed faith in fact is. Even worse than that, there are churches which call themselves "Reformed" who not only are any longer Reformed, but also have become in fact enemies and opponents of the Reformed faith.
There are also people who call themselves "Reformed" (Perhaps the church of which they are a part do not use the name "Reformed" in its ecclesiastical title, but they call themselves "Reformed"). If you should ask them, "Are you a Reformed person?" they would without hesitation say, "Yes, indeed." But if you would ask them to give an account of what it means to be "Reformed", or if you would ask them, "Why is it that you call yourselves Reformed?" they would be unable to give an answer. They have no conception of what it means to be "Reformed". These simply cling to the title because it sounds nice, or perhaps it has a venerable history, or because there is something traditionally appealing about it. But as far as what it means to be "Reformed" is concerned, they have not the faintest notion.
It is important to know what it means to be "Reformed". It is important that we understand it so that there can be no confusion on the matter. It is not a question, at least as far as I am concerned, whether or not you are truly "Reformed". If you are, well and good. If you are not, you are responsible for what you believe, but you must give an account before the Judge of heaven and earth for what you maintain to be the truth. Whether you are Reformed is not my major concern. It is of great concern to me that once and for all people cease to bandy about the term "Reformed" as though it has no specific and concrete meaning. Let us be honest before God, before the church, and before the King of the church, our Lord Jesus Christ. If we wish not to be Reformed, let us have the courage to say that the Reformed faith is not for us. We are not playing word games when we are talking about what it means to be Reformed.
I am Reformed. I am "Reformed" because I believe with all my heart that the Reformed faith is the truth of the Scriptures, and the truth of the Scriptures is eminently important because it is the difference between heaven and hell. We are not playing games. We are not engaging in semantics. We are not bandying about terms. We are talking about matters that are of eternal import: the truth of the Scriptures, the truth of God Himself, the truth of our salvation.
There are many, many different kinds of people who claim to be "Reformed". There are those who claim to be "Reformed" who are known as "fundamentalists". In the United States fundamentalism is a mighty religious and ecclesiastical movement. It is said in our daily papers that fundamentalists have been responsible for putting our last two presidents into office. That is some kind of power! Fundamentalists claim to be Reformed. But they are not.
Fundamentalists hold of course to the "fundamental" truths of the Scriptures. They hold to the infallible inspiration of the Scripture, to the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, to a belief in miracles or the miraculous. They hold to creationism instead of evolutionism. They hold to the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and they hold to a coming again of Jesus Christ upon the clouds of heaven. Those truths are all truths of the Scriptures. There is no question about that.
To believe these truths; however, does not make a man "Reformed". There are many, many Roman Catholics in the world who believe those same fundamentals of the Scriptures. I have met them myself and spoken with them. Who among us would possibly ever call a Roman Catholic, "Reformed"?
One of the characteristics of fundamentalism is that it teaches what has become known over the years as "Arminianism". Arminianism is not "Reformed". Many who are Arminian, however, parade under the Reformed flag. These boast of being Reformed. They claim that in fact they are Reformed though they hold consistently to doctrines that are thoroughgoing Arminianism.
What does Arminianism teach? It is Arminian (and not Reformed) to teach that salvation is dependent in some respects upon man: upon the will of man, or upon the choice of man, or upon man's power to accept or reject Jesus Christ. That is not Reformed! Arminianism teaches in keeping with this that God did not elect a people unto Himself from all eternity, but that God rather chooses to be His people those who He foresees will believe, and that He rejects those who He foresees will reject the gospel. That is exactly the definition of election and reprobation that a Roman Catholic priest said he held to when we were discussing this matter. He said, "Picture yourself on the top of a large building of many stories that overlooks an intersection in a busy city. Picture for yourself two cars speeding on different streets towards that intersection at 60 miles an hour, and picture that these cars are only 100 feet from the intersection. You can quite safely predict that those cars, being about equidistant from the intersection and traveling at a rapid rate of speed, will collide. So God predicts who will believe and who will reject the gospel. On that basis He elects His people and rejects others." That is not Reformed, it is Arminian. It is a disgrace to the gospel and a contradiction of the Scriptures. Anyone who holds to such a view and says that he is "Reformed", knows not of what he speaks.
It is Arminian and not "Reformed" to teach that Christ died for all men. It is a doctrine commonly held, so commonly held in fact that when anyone should venture to contradict it, people look astonished and amazed as if they have never heard in all their lives anyone teach anything else but that Christ died for all men head-for-head. But that is not Reformed! It never has been, it is not now, and it never will be!
It is not Reformed to teach that the gospel, which God causes to be preached in all the world, is an invitation to all men to be saved. It is not Reformed to teach that the gospel expresses God's willingness or longing or desire, to save all that hear the gospel. It is not Reformed to teach that Christ is presented in the gospel as One Who with arms outstretched pleads and begs with men to come to Him, accept Him and find their rest and hope in Him. The Reformed faith is not "decisionism", it is not "invitationism". It does not teach that the gospel is an "offer" to all.
The Reformed faith does not teach that it is possible for man to resist the work of the Holy Spirit. Man can not successfully resist the overtures of the Spirit, nor successfully restrain the Spirit from accomplishing His task. A man can not successfully continue in the way of unbelief and sin in spite of the Spirit's best efforts. He can not successfully continue on the road to hell, though the Spirit does all in His power to bring him to salvation. That is not Reformed! It never has been, it is not now, and it never will be.
It is not Reformed to teach that once a child of God does not necessarily mean always a child of God. It does not teach that I could be a child of God today, be lost tomorrow, and perhaps one week hence again be saved - and one month hence once again be on the road to destruction. That is not Reformed. It never has been, it is not now, and it never will be.
It is not Reformed to teach that God loves all men. It is not Reformed to teach that God blesses all men or is gracious to all men or gives His gifts of grace to all men, earnestly seeking their love and their returning favors to Him. That is Arminianism. Anyone who parades with those doctrines under the flag of "Reformed", either has no conception of what the Reformed faith is or lies before God and before the church.
The word "Reformed" has come from the Calvin Reformation. It is the genius of the Calvin Reformation that it was a reform of doctrine, of church worship and of church government. All of these things had been thoroughly corrupted by the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther too was an opponent of Roman Catholicism. Luther, however, is not called "Reformed" though not because he did not in essence agree with the doctrines of Calvin. Rather, his place as appointed by God in the Reformation was to fire the mighty cannon shot of the truth of justification by faith against the imposing and seemingly impregnable fortress of Rome's godless, apostate and idolatrous sacerdotalism. And in firing this cannon shot, Luther demolished this imposing structure.
It remained for Calvin to engage in the true work of Reformation. He did not simply destroy that which was opposed to God and His Word, but he built up and established what was the truth of the Scriptures. The Reformed faith is; therefore, that body of doctrine which the great Reformer of Geneva set forth.
I call your attention to the fact that the Reformed faith is a body of doctrine. Let us be very clear on that. Let there be absolutely no misunderstanding on that question at all. We live in an age in which there is little or no interest in doctrine. Men speak of a passion to "save souls". Men speak of the need to go to the unconverted. Men speak of the importance of missions (and indeed our Lord Himself commands us, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel" [Mark 16:15]. Those are the marching orders of the church). Nevertheless, the life of the church is not seen only in her mission calling. Indeed, any church that forgets that her fundamental calling is to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints is a church that has made herself incapable of even doing mission work. Let it be said with as much emphasis as possible that the Reformed faith is a body of doctrine: clear, careful, precise, spelled out doctrine. That is the Reformed faith. If you are not interested in doctrine, you have no claim to the name "Reformed".
If you do not believe that Calvin set forth a body of doctrine, I suggest that you sit down tonight in your living room chair with a copy of Calvin's Institutes. Five minutes of paging through the Institutes will persuade you beyond any contradiction that Calvin does indeed set forth doctrine.
The Reformed faith is a body of doctrine. It is not like a book on solid geometry which has in it propositions and theorems that which, whether you believe them or not, makes not one iota of difference in your life (except perhaps if the man whom you wish to work for, requires of you some mathematical knowledge). Rather, this body of doctrine is the truth concerning God. One who is a Reformed man is careful about this, exactly because it is doctrine concerning God. If you are walking down the street for example and you overhear three men who are, with leering smirks on their faces, speaking evilly of your wife, calling her a public whore, you will certainly do everything you possibly can to correct their mistake and to save the reputation of your wife, you will do this because you love her. The gossip and slander which is being spoken of her cuts you to the quick. You want your wife to be known for what she truly is.
So a Reformed man wants God to be known for what He truly is. The Reformed man not only dislikes but also hates with all his being the slandering of his God. He not only dislikes but also hates with all his being those who will not speak the truth concerning God, those who come with human inventions or with their own ideas - their gossip and slander about God. These will not bow before the truth of the Scriptures. The Reformed faith teaches the truth of God! And one who knows the Reformed faith and loves it is jealous for it. He echoes the words of Elijah under the juniper tree, repeated on Mt. Horeb, "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Israel" (I Kings 19:14).
What is the Reformed faith? Because the Reformed faith is the truth concerning God, it teaches, as Calvin did, that God is God alone, absolutely sovereign in all His works and ways. He does all His good pleasure, and accomplishes all of His sovereign purpose. The Reformed faith teaches that God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He sustains every creature by the Word of His power and rules over every creature by His sovereign might, so that every creature can perform only His will. This is not only true of the stars which He moves in their courses in the firmament, it is not only true of the path a beetle makes as it wends its way across the sidewalk, it is true also of the heart of kings. "For the king's heart", Solomon says, "is in the hand of the Lord as rivers of water. He turneth it whithersoever He will" (Proverbs 21:1).
The Reformed faith believes in a sovereign God. The Reformed faith believes, as Isaiah proclaims, that even Assyria, the world power of that day, was a saw and an axe in the hand of the Lord to saw and hew as He willed (Isaiah 10:15). The Reformed faith teaches that although our Lord Jesus Christ was delivered by Pilate and Herod and by the wicked hands of the Jews, it was nevertheless according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). The Reformed faith believes, as the prophet Amos confessed, that if there is evil in the city, the Lord has done it (Amos 3:6). That is the Reformed faith. The Lord is sovereign. The Lord does all His good pleasure. The Lord does as He pleases in heaven above and in the earth beneath. The Lord sets kings on their thrones, and throws them down at His will.
The Reformed faith demands this question which confronts us: Is our doctrine that which holds high the sovereignty of the Lord of heaven and earth? That is after all the question which we confront. Do we want, do we worship, do we serve, do we put our trust in a sovereign God? Or is it satisfactory to us to have an idol, one helpless before the sovereign will of man? Do we serve one who is unable to save those whom He wishes to bring to heaven: a pleading God, a pleading Christ, while man is sovereign to do as he wills? That kind of God I don't need and I don't want. I need a God Who can save a helpless, depraved, corrupt sinner. If I have not that kind of God, it is all hopeless.
The Reformed faith believes, and Calvin taught, that God is sovereign over the whole work of salvation from beginning to end. Man contributes nothing. The Reformed faith believes, and Calvin taught, that from all eternity before the worlds were formed, before the foundations of the creation were laid, God chose unto Himself without any regard to works or man's merits, a people that He gave to Christ (Ephesians 1:4). These were destined to be His own, and were destined to live with Him in eternal glory in the world that shall come.
God determined sovereignly who were the reprobate (Romans 9:22). He determined, as a manifestation of His justice, that the reprobate would reveal this justice in the way of their sins everlastingly in hell.
God, as the sovereign Lord, gave His Son, not to die for all men, but to die for His sheep (Matthew 1:21). "For those who were given Him of the Father" (John 6:37), He made atonement. Thus He by His perfect obedience on the cross accomplished for His elect, who were precious in His sight, the fullness of everlasting salvation.
The Reformed faith teaches that the Spirit of the Christ Who is the exalted Lord at God's right hand, is irresistible in His power to save. That Spirit goes through the length and breadth of this vast creation. He knows who are the elect for whom Christ died, and for whom He shed His blood. He enters into their hearts, overcoming their resistance, battering down the walls of their rebellion, overcoming their bitter hatred and enmity against God. He sacks the citadels of their unbelief. Moving into their hearts, He creates of sinners saints. Out of blasphemers He creates those from whose mouths arise praises to God. By an altogether irresistible, mighty power He transforms and delivers from the bondage of sin.
The Reformed faith believes and teaches, as Calvin taught, that man is himself totally depraved (Romans 3). He is so totally depraved that he not only can not do any good, but he also can not even will the good. He cannot want the good. He cannot seek the good. He cannot search for it. He has no taste for it. All he has is hatred, bitter, undying, unrelenting hatred of all that is good and of all that is of God. His salvation depends in its entirety upon the sovereign and irresistible work of the Spirit.
The Reformed faith teaches, and Calvin taught, that "once a child of God, always a child of God" (Philippians 1:6). As the Lord Himself says in John 10:28, "No one can pluck them out of my hand". We may fall ever so deeply into sin, we may stray ever so far from the way of God's commandments; yet we are held safely by the Almighty Hand of our Savior, Who preserves us and keeps us. He will once again, though it be through chastisement, restore us to repentance and confession. Then we fall on our knees and cry out for forgiveness, as the Spirit drives us to the cross. Then once again we cling to the bleeding body of our Savior.
The Reformed faith teaches that salvation is the work of God from its beginning to its final and perfect end in the resurrection of the body and in life everlasting in heaven.
The Reformed faith teaches that faith, by which we cling to Christ, is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). God not only gives us the power to believe, but He also works in us the act of believing itself. The Reformed faith teaches that; therefore, the gospel is not an invitation, not an offer, not an expression of the universal love of God, not a presentation of a pleading Savior. It is rather, as Paul says in Romans 1:16, "The power of God unto salvation".
The Reformed faith does not believe that God loves all men, nor that all men are the objects of His favor and of His grace. Rather, God is angry with the wicked every day, as the Psalmist again and again expresses it (Psalm 7:11, etc.). The Reformed faith believes, as the wise man of Israel expresses it in Proverbs, that the curse of the Lord is in the house of the wicked, but He blesses the habitation of the just (3:33). The Reformed faith believes that there is nothing but hatred, nothing but curse, for the ungodly. God drives them, as Asaph sings in Psalm 73, on to the slippery slopes of destruction.
The Reformed faith teaches, and Calvin taught, that all things are for the salvation of the elect for whom Christ died (Romans 8:28). The Reformed faith teaches these things because it maintains that God is God! He does all His good pleasure. He is alone the sovereign, the Holy One of Israel to Whom belongs all praise and glory and power for ever and ever. That is the Reformed faith. That alone is the Reformed faith.
That which denies those truths, is not Reformed. One who holds to anything else, can not claim to himself the name "Reformed". It has never been Reformed to teach anything else, not since the days of the Reformer of Geneva, it is not today, it will not be until the Lord comes back.
Those who claim to be Reformed and teach otherwise, either do so out of ignorance or else are sailing under a false flag. They fly the flag of Her Majesty's navy on a pirate's craft. They do so in order that with deceit they may lurk here and there and deceive others, thus leading them to destruction. These are enemies of the Reformed faith. Let us be sure we understand that.
The Lord was very clear, when He said to His disciples, there are only two positions which you can occupy: either you are for Me, or you are against Me (Matthew 12:30) - one of the two. There is no neutral ground. There is no "grey" area where a man can stand as he tries to make up his mind. You are for the Reformed faith, or you are against it. You believe it and love it with every fiber of your being or you oppose it. The Reformed faith claims for itself that kind of exclusiveness because it claims the exclusivity of Scripture and of a sovereign God, Who has revealed Himself on the pages of Holy Writ.
In the second place, the Reformed faith is a "world and life" view: the way in which one looks at the world.
The Reformed faith teaches that the child of God, the elect believing child of God in the midst of this world, is to use Jesus' words in John 17:14, "Though in the world, not of the world". Let it be clearly understood that doctrine and life go together.
What a tragedy it is that in our doctrinally illiterate age, in our time of doctrinal carelessness and indifference, people piously prate about the fact that doctrine is unimportant. It only makes a difference how one lives, they say. Has the whole of the Reformed faith, and has the whole of the Christian religion been reduced to a morality play? Is that the position that we are supposed to take? God forbid! Morality without doctrine is nothing. The world - the world of unbelief, the world of paganism - has produced some of the most moral men of all time. Greek philosophy produced men of great moral stature. Is that Christianity? Is that the Reformed faith? It is not. Doctrine and life go together. What a man believes determines his life, and if his life is not rooted in his faith, it means nothing at all. In fact, what a man believes concerning the truth of the Scriptures is itself a way of life. That is what is meant by the "antithesis".
It needs to be emphasized that if, as is commonly held in our day, God loves all men, that all men are the objects of His grace, that all men are the objects of His benevolence, kindness and graciousness; if all men are the objects of His "common grace"; if all men are the objects of His love revealed in a cross on which Christ died for all men head-for-head, then there is no longer any "antithesis" between the world and the church.
If God loves all men, if God is gracious toward all men, if God is kind towards all men, that results in a certain goodness that you find in the world at large. Though there are monsters of iniquity, the Stalins and the Hitlers of history, on the whole men have a lot of good in them. They are men of philanthropy. They are men capable of producing tremendous works in the field of the arts: paintings of great beauty and musical compositions of unsurpassing glory. They are capable of giving of their millions to works of philanthropy, such as building hospitals. They are capable of striving for good goals in this world of sin, goals such as for example a world in which peace reigns and wars are abandoned. You will even find in the world such good men who oppose abortion, who oppose homosexuality and the corruptions of sexual depravity and perversity. If you ascribe all of these things to the gracious, kind, and benevolent work of God through the universal operation of His Spirit and His goodness towards all, then you see that by that kind of "common grace", you destroy the deep chasm that God has struck between the church and the world. Common grace builds a bridge over that chasm. Common grace allows the world to flood into the church and the church to rush eagerly into the world. It encourages the church to unite with the world in all kinds of common causes. Whether that be in the field of science, in the field of philanthropy, in the field of morality, in the field of politics (in the interest in putting certain men in office), in the field of economics or whatever, there is plenty of room for cooperation and agreement. There are many occasions for the wicked and the righteous to work together, arm-in-arm and hand-in-hand.
The Reformed faith pronounces with all of its might, an anathema, a fierce anathema, on that sort of thinking. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, what communion hath light with darkness, and what concord hath Christ with Belial, or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel, and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord" (II Corinthians 6:14-17). That is the Reformed faith: the cutting knife of the antithesis cuts through every part of the life of the child of God in the midst of the world.
Yes, we are in the world, and the wicked are in the world. The wicked work next to us in the factories and they live next door to us on the same street. We go to the same grocery store, we eat the same food, and we share this creation of God equally and in common. There is no question about that at all. But in every single part of his life, without exception, the unbeliever lives out of the principle of his hatred of God; the believer lives out of the principle of the life of Christ in his heart. Paul even talks about the fact that our weeping is fundamentally different from the weeping of the ungodly: "For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death" (II Corinthians 7:10). Your rejoicing is different from the laughter of the world. Your whole life is different because there is born in you, by the power of the Spirit of the Christ, the life of heaven. You are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. You are walking in this life as a pilgrim and a stranger in the earth. You "sit loose" to the things of this present world. Your citizenship is above. The goal of your life's journey is your Father's house. The things of this world only occupy your attention in so far as they are necessary for you to continue your calling as a pilgrim and a stranger in thankfulness to your heavenly Father. You serve the Lord Christ all your life, and His kingdom is not of this world. His kingdom is from heaven (John 18:36).
The Reformed faith has had as its motto since the days of John Calvin, this: "A Reformed church is a reforming church". What does that mean? That means, briefly, no church can ever be stagnant. A stagnant church is like a stagnant body of water: It soon is covered with green slime and begins to stink. A church cannot be stagnant. It either moves forward or it slides backward, one of the two. The great tragedy of our day is that the church, the nominal church - that which calls itself "church", has gone backward. It has gone so far backward that it has not only lost any sense of what it means to be "Reformed", but it has also lost any sense of what it means to be church! Though it has imposing structures, though it has mighty programs, programs that cost millions of pounds [dollars], though it speaks loudly of all kinds of social endeavors, though it raises a loud and clamoring voice in the counsels of men and nations, it has ceased to be "church".
A Reformed church moves ahead. Why? Because the unsearchable riches of the knowledge of God in the Scriptures are depths: depths of glory, depths of truth, depths of blessedness, which no one will ever be able to plumb on this side of heaven (Romans 11:33). "We see", Paul says as we look into Scriptures, "through a glass darkly" (I Corinthians 13:12). The Scriptures are as a mirror. Behind us shines Jesus Christ. The Scriptures pick up Jesus Christ and reflect some of His glory, and the glory of Christ is the revelation of God to us in the Scriptures. That which we see there is overwhelmingly beautiful. But we can only know part of it. Someday, Paul says, we will turn around and we will see Him face to face (I Corinthians 13:12). Then we will not need the glass anymore because we will be with Him and know the truth in all the fullness of its perfection. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are a mine, which if the world should last ten thousand times ten thousand years would continue to contain the truths which our feeble minds only begin to understand. This is the revelation of God in the face of Christ. The Reformed church recognizes that. It does not turn its back on the past. God forbid. It receives that glorious legacy of the Reformed faith as the gift of the Spirit of truth to the church. It receives it with humble thanksgiving. It receives it as the priceless possession for which countless have died. For this legacy they shed their blood, loving not their lives, unto death, saints and martyrs who have now gone to join the company of just men made perfect. It is a legacy written in the blood of our fellow saints with whom someday we shall live in glory. We receive it in all humility and reverence. It is almost as if, taking it into our hands, we understand that He puts us in charge of a priceless possession.
What shall we do with it? Shall we sell it for a mess of pottage? Shall we scatter it to the four winds? Shall we be unfaithful to the blood of those who bought it in the face of suffering? Shall we speak carelessly, indifferently, foolishly of a "Reformed" faith, while we betray those who gave their lives for it? No; we take it as a most cherished possession to be faithful to. We give it to our children to commend it to their care because it is the knowledge of God. "This is eternal life", Jesus prays, "that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
When we have that treasure, that faith once delivered unto the saints, then it is our calling to earnestly contend for it (Jude 3), though it means that we are scorned and mocked. Though we are small in number, our legacy is far too precious to sacrifice on the altar of popularity and the pleasing looks of mere men. It is our salvation.
A Reformed church takes that heritage and moves ahead with it in excitement and eagerness. In joy in the truth, it searches the Scriptures so that it may come to a clearer, fuller, and more blessed understanding of that precious Word of God. A Reformed church is a faithful church, a church who continues to develop in the truth of the Scriptures.
That is the Reformed truth. Are you "Reformed"? If you are not, if those doctrines are not the doctrines you want, that is your business. You have, after all, in this world the right to believe as you will - although you must give answer before Him Who sits on the Great White Throne, and when you stand before Him Who sits on that Great White Throne, He is not going to ask you, "What mighty deeds did you do? How many souls did you save for Me?" He is not going to ask you whether you tried to make this world the kingdom of Christ. He is not interested in that. He is going to ask you one question, "Were you faithful to My Word and Truth?" That is all.
If you do not want it, so be it. But do not in all honesty before God and the church say you are "Reformed". Whatever you want to believe, that is your business; but do not call yourself "Reformed".
If you are Reformed and want to be Reformed, and if you love the truth of the great glory of Almighty God, then stand with us in these evil days and fight with us in the cause of the truth of the gospel. The time is short. The end is at hand. Let us work while it is yet day ere the night cometh in which no man can labor (John 9:4).
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