God loves every physical child of believing parents.
In this love, God sincerely desires to save every physical child of believing parents.
This love of God for every child of believing parents is covenant love. It is not merely some superficial affection (supposing now that there is such a weak and fleeting emotion in God) that the children share with the entire ungodly world. It is not merely a love that desires their temporal welfare. It is not merely a warm feeling that gives these children earthly gifts.
But it is the rich, deep love of God revealed in the incarnation and death of Christ. It is love that wishes to bestow on them the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It is love that longs to have them as sons and daughters in the family of the Elder Brother. It is love that sincerely desires their salvation.
Such is the character of the conditional covenant of God with the children of believers that is believed, confessed, and defended by many Reformed and Presbyterian churches today.
This was candidly confessed by a representative of the defenders of the doctrine in the January 1, 1997 issue of the Standard Bearer. In answer to my question, “Does the promise that, according to Rev. Tuininga, is made by God to every child of believing parents, express God’s covenantal love for every child?” the Rev. Cecil W. Tuininga wrote, “Yes, God does express His love for every covenant child.” In answer to my question, “Does this promise indicate that God sincerely desires to save every child of believing parents?” he wrote, “Yes, God does desire to save every covenant child.”
Tuininga’s candid confession distinguishes itself from the vagueness and evasiveness at the crucial points of the statements of other defenders of the conditional covenant. Nevertheless, it does nothing more than make explicit what is, in fact, implicit in the main aspects of the doctrine. If God at their baptism makes His covenant with all baptized children and if God on His part promises to all children that He will be their God in Jesus Christ, God loves all baptized children with the love of the covenant and sincerely desires to save them. Scripture teaches that the establishment of the covenant with a person and the promise of salvation are the revelation of the love of God for that person.
The candor of the confession does serve to make clear that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is unbiblical and un-Reformed. For this reason, the candid confession is helpful. The subject is the physical children of believing parents. More specifically, the issue is the attitude and will of the covenant God in Jesus Christ toward these children. As regards this exact subject and issue, it is the teaching of the apostle of Christ that God did not love both sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Before the sons were born or had done any good or evil, God made known that He loved Jacob and hated Esau (Rom. 9:10-13). Scripture flatly contradicts the teaching of the conditional covenant, that God loves all the children of believing parents.
Nor did God sincerely desire to save Esau as is held by the conditional covenant. God willed to harden Esau unto his eternal damnation (Rom. 9:l8). He made Esau a vessel unto dishonor (Rom. 9:21). He fitted Esau, child of believing parents though he was, to destruction and endured that vessel of wrath (Rom. 9:22).
One thing Esau’s circumcision (which had the same significance as the baptism of a child under the new covenant) did not mean: God’s covenant love for him and, with this love, the desire to save him. One thing did not take place at Esau’s circumcision: God’s promising to establish His covenant with Esau.
The character, or nature, of the conditional covenant is un- Reformed in that it extends the saving love of God in Jesus Christ, the mediator of the covenant, to men and women who are not saved by that love, but perish in spite of it. God’s love fails to save some objects of that love. God’slove failed to save Esau. The love of God – the covenant love of God – fails, is frustrated, is defeated.
It is the Reformed faith that the love of God in Jesus Christ – God’s covenant love – is sovereign. It has its way with every sinner who is the object of this love. It saves. No human loved by God in Jesus Christ will perish. This is the creedal doctrine of the Reformed faith in the Canons of Dordt.
The other side of the un- Reformed character of the conditional covenant is its necessarily implied teaching that the reason why God’s covenant love does save some children is an act which they perform. The reason cannot be the love of God itself, for the very same love is directed also to children who perish. The faith of Jacob, not the love of God, distinguished Jacob from Esau.
On the contrary, it is the Reformed faith that the salvation of the children of believing parents, which is part of the saving of the elect church, is due only to the discriminating love of God for these children. “This purpose proceeding from everlasting love towards the elect, has from the beginning of the world to this day been powerfully accomplished, and will henceforward still continue to be accomplished . . . so that the elect in due time may be gathered together into one . ..” (Canons 11/9).
As the candid confession makes plain, the conditional covenant is essentially the same as the doctrine that God loves all men, desires to save all, well-meaningly offers salvation to all in the gospel, and depends for the efficacy of His love and the fulfillment of His desire upon the acceptance of His offer by the sinner. This is put beyond any doubt by the texts to which Rev. Tuininga appeals in the questions which he puts to me in return: Matthew 23:37; I Timothy 2:3,4;. II Peter 3:9. The only differences between the conditional covenant and the doctrine of a universal love of God dependent upon the free will of the-sinner are that the conditional covenant teaches universal love in the sphere of the covenant, rather than in the sphere of the preaching of the gospel worldwide; speaks of a conditional promise, rather than of a conditional offer of the gospel; and locates the conditional address of God in baptism, rather than in the preaching of the gospel.
In the Canons of the Synod of Dordt, the Reformed churches have officially condemned the doctrine of a universal, ineffectual love of God dependent upon the condition of faith as false doctrine, as a form of the “other gospel” anathematized by Paul in Galatians 1:8, 9.
Why the representative of the proponents of a conditional covenant holds back from acknowledging that Jesus died for all the physical children of believers is a mystery. He does so hold back. To my question, “Did Jesus Christ shed His blood for every baptized child of believing parents?” he answers, “No, Jesus shed His blood only for those given Him by the Father.” No doubt, there is hesitation to contradict the established Reformed doctrine of “limited atonement.” This is commendable.
But it is no worse to deny limited atonement than to deny God’s discriminating love and particular will of salvation, that is, divine election. Fact is, the Canons of Dordt ground the atonement in election and determine the extent of the atonement according to the number of those whom God desires to save:
…it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, shouId effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father… (II/ 8).
On the reckoning of the Canons, if God loves and desires to save all the children of believing parents, Christ also died for all the children.
Can even the most paradoxical of Calvinistic thinkers be satisfied with the theology of the conditional covenant? The covenant God in Jesus Christ loves all the children alike with His covenant love, but designs the atonement to exclude some of them! He desires to save them all, but deliberately refuses to accomplish for some of them the redemption upon which this salvation depends!
This thrusts contradiction and confusion into the mind and will of God. At the very least, it drives a wedge between the electing Father and the redeeming Son, contrary to the testimony of Jesus Himself in John 6:37-40.
And what does this say of the truthfulness of God who, according to the conditional covenant, declares to every child at baptism, Esau as well as Jacob: “I love you with covenant love; I make my covenant with you; I adopt you for my son and heir; I sincerely desire your salvation; and I promise to give you eternal life”? As He is saying these things, it is unalterably true that Christ did not die for that particular child by the determination of the God who is speaking to the child. Christ did not confirm the covenant for the child, did not satisfy divine justice for the child (upon which adoption depends), did not obtain salvation for the child, did not earn faith for the child.
According to the Reformed “Form for the Administration of Baptism,” the promise given by God in baptism is not abstracted from the cross, but is based upon the cross and has the cross as its content. If then, as the conditional covenant teaches, God makes the promise to every baptized child, Christ must have died for every child.
So much is universal atonement demanded by a universal love of God in Jesus Christ that wherever the latter is taught the former invariably follows. This has ‘happened in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) as Rev. Tuininga, who only’ recently left this church, knows well. The covenant doctrine that prevailed in the CRC from its early days was the conditional covenant of Prof. W. Heyns. Like all forms of the conditional covenant, this doctrine taught a grace, or love, of God for all the children of believers. This doctrine paved the way for the adoption of the doctrine of common grace in 1924. The main error of this dogma of the CRC is its teaching that God in Christ loves and desires to save everyone who hears the gospel. In the 1960s, a Christian Reformed theologian publicly advocated universal atonement. The synod of the CRC refused to condemn this doctrine. Today, it is widespread in the CRC to preach that Christ died for all men. It is equally widespread among the people to believe that Christ died for all men.
I would be surprised if, especially in the Netherlands where the conditional covenant has been strongly promoted, Reformed ministers do not teach that Christ died for all the children of believers and Reformed people do not have this as their deep conviction.
To my question, whether faith is included among the benefits promised to the children at baptism, the Rev. Tuininga answered, “No, faith is a condition that a covenant child must fulfill but can only fulfill by God’s grace (Eph. 2:8). If they do not fulfill this condition they are cut off the covenant tree (Rom. 11:22).”
This has to be his answer as one who teaches that God addresses the covenant promise to every baptized child. If faith is one of the benefits included in the promise to every child, faith cannot be the condition upon which reception of the promise depends, as is the teaching of the conditional covenant. Also, if faith is one of the benefits included in the promise, God must give faith to every child, which the conditional covenant denies.
But in denying that faith is itself a benefit included in the covenant promise, the conditional covenant goes grievously wrong. First, this is, in reality, a denial that faith is the gift of God to sinners as the Canons teach in III, IV/ 14. All of the gifts that belong to salvation were earned by the death of Christ and come to the heirs of salvation by promise. The Canons expressly state that Christ earned faith for all the elect by His death (II/8). Acts 2:38, 39 teaches that those who are called receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, which includes every spiritual grace, as promise and by promise.
Second, the denial that faith is part of the promise contradicts the confessions. The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that in the covenant of grace God “promise to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe (7.31.” The point to notice is not that Westminster strictly limits the promise to the elect (which it does), but that it makes faith a benefit included in the promise itself.
The Reformed Heidelberg Catechism does the same in Question 74: To the infants of believers, “the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised.” In the promise of the author of faith to the children is promised the faith of which He is author. How can Rev. Tuininga, bound as he is by the Heidelberg Catechism, deny that faith is included among the benefits in the promise that God makes to the children of believers? But if it is included, how can it be the condition upon which depends the fulfillment of a universal promise? And if it is included in the promise that God supposedly makes to every child, why does God not fulfill His promise to every child?
To affirm at the end that the child fulfills the condition of faith “by God’s grace” is not sufficient to rescue the doctrine of a conditional covenant from heresy. For one thing, even the outright Arminian, who attributes faith to man’s free will, does not refuse to say, especially when he is being pressed by a champion of God’s free grace, that sinners believe with the help of God’s grace. In addition, the mere statement that the child believes “by God’s grace” is overpowered by the teaching itself that faith is the condition of the fulfillment of the promise and that, faith is not included among the benefits that God promises to the children..
Besides, in the popular presentation of the doctrine of a conditional covenant, the defenders of this doctrine usually say nothing at all about the child’s believing “by God’s grace.” The latest issue of the magazine, Lux Mundi, is an example of this. Explaining the meaning of baptism, the editor, a theologian who holds the conditional covenant, writes:
The triune God himself acts in baptism…. He assures the person baptized that the promises of his covenant are for him. In the sign and seal of baptism he promises such a person regeneration by the Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And to all who accept his promises in faith God also gives what he promises! (Dec. 15, 1996, p. 1)
There is not so much as a hint that the baptized sinner believes “by God’s grace.” On the contrary, the reader is given to understand that the salvation of the child depends on his own act of “accepting” the promises of God. Indeed, this popular presentation of the conditional covenant teaches gross false doctrine: the baptized infant’s regeneration depends upon his faith. God, we are told, promises to regenerate all who accept His promise in faith. James Arminius was not so bold.
The candid confession of the character of the conditional covenant by Rev. Tuininga throws into bold relief the fundamental departure from the Reformed faith of this doctrine of the covenant. The root of the errors regarding the love of God, God’s will of salvation, the cross, the promise, and faith is the conception of the covenant as established conditionally with every child at baptism. This is the conception that Rev. Tuininga affirms when he answers my questions about the work of the triune God described by our Reformed “Form” as the second principal part of the doctrine of holy baptism., To my questions whether God the Father makes an eternal covenant of grace with every child; whether God the Son seals to every child that He washes him in His blood; and whether God the Holy Ghost assures every child that He will dwell in him, on the condition that the child will believe, Rev. Tuininga answers, “Yes; yes; yes.”
It is this conception of the covenant with the children of believers, which refuses to view the covenant in the light of predestination (as Paul does in Romans 9), that necessarily results in the teaching of universal covenant love and a universal will of salvation within the sphere of the covenant.
I have earlier set forth on these pages, and defended, a doctrine of an unconditional covenant of grace with believers and their true, spiritual children according to election (a series on “The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers” in vol. 66; a related series on “The Approach to Covenant Children” in vol. 67; and a series on “An ‘Election Theology of Covenant” in vol. 67). These articles are readily available. I need not repeat what I wrote in them.
What I must do, however, is answer the questions that Rev. Tuininga has put to me as a defender of the unconditional covenant.
With the same candor with which he answered mine.