At the end of the letter in which he candidly confessed the character of a conditional covenant, Rev. Cecil Tuininga appealed to several texts in Scripture in support of his doctrine. These texts are Matthew 23:37; Romans 10:21; I Timothy 2:3, 4; and II Peter 3:9 (see the Standard Bearer, Jan. 1, 1997, p. 150).
Although he presents no explanation of the texts, Rev. Tuininga makes clear what his understanding of the texts is. For him, the first two texts mean that God loved every physical descendant of Abraham in the time of the old covenant, and willed to save them all. Since the fulfillment of God’s love and desire to save depended on each Israelite’s performing the condition of faith and since many Israelites refused to perform this condition, God’s love was frustrated in many instances, and His will to save came to nothing.
He understands the last two texts exactly the same way, except that these texts extend God’s love and will to save to every human who ever lived, lives, and will live.
In this explanation of these familiar passages, Rev. Tuininga is representative of all who hold a universal, conditional covenant, that is, a doctrine of the covenant with Abraham and his seed that cuts the covenant loose from predestination and that makes the covenant promise dependent upon the condition of faith.
Rev. Tuininga identifies his explanation of the passages as Reformed.
The rejection of his explanation of the texts by the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC), he brands as “hyper-Calvinism”: “I would be very happy to see our Protestant Reformed brothers come to recognize and correct their hyper-Calvinism and become truly Reformed.”
The defender of a conditional covenant of universal grace is confident. He challenges the advocate of the unconditional covenant of particular grace to explain the texts. If God does not love and desire the salvation of all those within the sphere of the covenant, why did Jesus say in Matthew 23:37, “How often I wanted to gather your children . . . but you were not willing”? If God does not desire the salvation of all men without exception, “how do you interpret I Timothy 2:3, 4?”
He becomes bold in his confidence, almost insulting:
Shall we do a little revising and say that by “all” God meant the elect? But then the Word of God would have said so! Shall we say that it means “all different kinds of people”? If that was the intention of the Holy Spirit, it would have been clearly stated. If this is not the clear message of Scripture, that God desires all men to be saved, then what does it say?
Any other interpretation than his explanation of universal grace and a desire in God that all without exception be saved must be “a little revising” of Holy Scripture. But the revising of the Word of God, whether little or large, is anathema to the Reformed Christian.
In response to this challenge, I will do two things. I will briefly interpret the texts raised by Rev. Tuininga, and I will show that the interpretation that I give has been the interpretation of these texts by the orthodox defenders of God’s sovereign grace down through the ages.
Before I proceed with this agenda, two observations are in order. First, the texts to which Rev. Tuininga appeals are the very texts to which the enemies of predestination and salvation by sovereign grace have always appealed. Pelagius raised them against Augustine. Erasmus raised them against Luther. Pighius and Georgius raised them against Calvin. Rev. Tuininga can find the evidence of this in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings; in Luther’s Bondage of the Will; and in Calvin’s treatises on predestination and providence in Calvin’s Calvinism.
The second observation is that the appeal to these texts by the defenders of a conditional covenant, with the interpretation of the texts as teaching a universal grace of God in Jesus Christ, confirms the conviction of the PRC that the doctrine of a conditional covenant is essentially the same error as that of the “welI-meant offer of the gospel.” This is the error of a universal grace of God in Jesus Christ dependent, for its saving effect upon the will of the sinner. And this, we contend, is the “other gospel” of Galatians 1:8, 9 and Romans 9:16, the “gospel” of Arminianism which was exposed and condemned by the Reformed churches at the Synod of Dordt.
Now to the texts.
Matthew 23:37 is the climax of Jesus’ expression of indignation against the wicked rulers of Old Testament Israel: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I thou ,that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
It was Jesus’ will to gather Jerusalem’s children. The gathering is certainly their salvation. But Jerusalem’s children are not all the physical descendants of Abraham. The children of Jerusalem, mother of the people of God, are the same as the children of Abraham, father of the people of God. The children of Jerusalem are those who are in Jesus: Christ by divine election, as the apostle teaches in Romans 9:6-13 and Galatians 3:29.
There is distinction in the text between “Jerusalem” and “thy children.” Christ did not will to gather “Jerusalem.” The reprobate rulers of the apostate institution with the hardened people whom they controlled, Christ willed to damn in just judgment (see vv. 33-36, 38, 39). He willed to gather specifically, and only “thy children . ”
That Christ’s saving will was particular is plain from the example that He employed: “even as a hen gathereth her chickens.” No hen wishes in her instinctive way to gather all the chicks on thefarmyard, but only her own brood. Similarly, the Christ of God has His own “brood” among the Jews, as among the Gentiles. His “brood” is “all that which the Father giveth me” (John 6:37-39). It is “the children which God hath given me” (Heb. 2:13).
The right interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:37 insists that Jesus did, and does, gather Jerusalem’s children. He gathers every one of them; not one of them is lost. He gathers them in spite of Jerusalem’s opposition: “and ye would not.” He redeemed all of them by His death. He effectually calls all of them by His Word and Spirit. .He will raise all of them from the, grave on the last day. Not one of Jerusalem’s children, whom Christ willed to gather, perishes. The will of the Christ and the will of God who sent Him make this certain.
Have Rev. Tuininga and the other defenders of a conditional covenant considered the implications of their explanation of Matthew 23:37?
1) The Messiah of God failed in His official labor on behalf of God. For surely Jesus speaks in the text as the Messiah. Many whom He, as the Messiah, willed to gather, perish.
2) The will of man overcomes the will of God’s Christ, indeed, the will of God in our flesh. The Son of God wills to gather. Sinful ecclesiastical rulers will that He not gather. Their will prevails; His will is defeated.
3) Jesus Christ died for every physical descendant of Abraham. Whatever may be the extent of Christ’s will to gather, the will that He expresses in Matthew 23:37 is carried out in His death a few days later. Jesus wills to gather Jerusalem’s children in His cross, just as Jerusalem wills by that same cross, considered now as the evil deed of men, that He not gather her children. Jesus’ gathering of sinners is centrally His atoning death. Thus, and in no other way, He gathers. If now He willed to gather every physical Jew, He certainly died for every physical Jew. By their interpretation of Matthew 23:37, the defenders of the conditional covenant necessarily arrive at universal, ineffectual atonement.
The particularistic interpretation of Matthew 23:37 that I have given is biblical. It does full justice to the text itself (“thy children”; “as a hen gathereth her chickens”). It harmonizes with the grand theme of all of Scripture, that Christ the Savior, grace, and salvation are for the elect alone, by the will of God.
Rev. Tuininga dismisses this interpretation beforehand as merely the “logic” of hyper-Calvinists.
He should be more careful.
The interpretation that I have given was also that, in the main, of Augustine. The great church father gave this interpretation in his book, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love. “Enchiridion” means ‘handbook.’ Augustine wrote the book in A.D. 421 as a summary of his thought on the essential teachings of the Christian religion. It may be regarded as the first Christian dogmatics. Such a judge as Adolph von Harnack (no hyper-Calvinist!) regarded this work as Augustine’s “matured exposition of the Symbol (the Apostles’ Creed – DJE)” and as “our best guide” to Augustine’s thought.
In section XCVI, Augustine taught God’s sovereignty as regards sin. If we do not believe that God’s sovereignty governs evil, Augustine wrote,
the very first sentence of our creed is endangered, wherein we profess to believe in God the Father Almighty. For Heis not truly called Almighty if He cannot do whatsoever He pleases, or if the power of His almighty will is hindered by the will of any creature whatsoever
Immediately, in section XCVII, he continued:
Hence we must inquire in what sense is said of God what the apostle has most truly said: “Who will have all men to be saved” (I Tim. 2:4). For, as a matter of fact, not all, nor even a majority, are saved: so that it would seem that what God wills is not done, man’s will interfering with, and hindering the will, of God. When we ask the reason why all men are not saved, the ordinary answer is: “Because men themselves are not willing.” This, indeed, cannot be said of infants, for it is not in their power either it will or not to will. But if we could attribute to their will the childish movements they make at baptism, when they make all the resistance they can, we should say that even they are not willing to be saved.
Then follows Augustine’s interpretation of Matthew 23:37:
Our Lord says plainly, however, in the Gospel, when upbraiding the impious city: “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37) as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out. And where is that omnipotence which hath done all that it pleased on earth and in heaven, if God willed to gather together the children of Jerusalem, and did not accomplish it? Or rather, Jerusalem was not willing that her children should be gathered together, but even though she was unwilling, He gathered together as many of her children as He wished: for He does not will some things and do them, and will others and do them not; but “He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth”
(Augustine, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, ed. Henry Paolucci, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1961, pp. 110, 111).
Augustine flatly contradicted the interpretation of Matthew 23:37 by Rev. Cecil Tuininga and, to be fair, the interpretation by hosts of professing Calvinists today.
Augustine regarded the explanation of the text by the defenders of a conditional covenant and by the defenders of a “well-meant offer of the gospel” as endangering the very first article of the Christian faith, “I believe in God the Father Almighty.”
How serious is their explanation of the text, in the judgment of Augustine, he indicated in the next line:
And, moreover, who will be so foolish and blasphemous as to say that God cannot change the evil wills of men, whichever, whenever, and wheresoever He chooses, and direct them to what is good?
Will the advocates of universal grace, whether in the sphere of the covenant or in the wide world, who love to appeal to Matthew 23:37, now call Augustine a hyper- Calvinist?
It is easy, and even popular in Reformed circles, to call the PRC hyper-Calvinists.
Dare they say this about Augustine, from whose interpretation of Matthew 23:37 and doctrine of sovereign grace we do not differ?