From a Canadian reader I received a rather lengthy letter which touches on an important question. I will quote most of the letter:
“However at this time I will try to put in words something on which I would like to have your opinion. This something concerns the ‘covenant of grace.’
“By now you will be perfectly aware of the fact that I am not a theologian, and I hope you will also this time bear with me when I put things upside down and vice-versa. Although we as laymen cannot in many cases discuss the truth as a minister, this does not mean that we do not know our doctrine and our Bible; I must admit, of course, that our training in the Chr. Ref. Church has been far from complete.
“As I have said, my question concerns the ‘covenant of grace’; and not this precious truth itself, but its application to believers and their children. By ‘application’ I mean, then: how should preaching be in our churches, and what shall we tell our children at home, at school, and in church? My concern goes somewhat as follows: years ago already, when I was still a boy, my parents used to say of the general preaching in the Gereformeerde Kerken, ‘We hear so little of conversion and repentance; it seems that these are not necessary for covenant people.’ And, of course, this has not changed in the years that followed, but preaching has become what I call ‘one-sided’ more and more all the time. For as it is now, it is taken for granted that when we are baptized, and go to church, all is well. But is it?
“Nicodemus was a ‘master in Israel” but the Lord told him plainly, ‘You’ must be born again.’ We read inHebrews 4:2, ‘For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.’ Also I Corinthians 10 gives us a clear picture that everyone of the old covenant people were not saved, but were destroyed because of their sins. And Paul says, ‘Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.’ (vs. 12)
“I am afraid that much preaching has led to a false security, in that the impression has been given that we ‘stand’ by reason of the covenant. ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Of course, all this is to be included in the covenant of grace; and for that reason the Jews said, ‘We have Abraham for a father.’ And Nicodemus lacked the knowledge that he ‘must be born again.’
“It is also Answer 84 of our Heidelberg Catechism which deals with this matter of preaching to children of the covenant when it says, ‘that to believers one andall it must be proclaimed that those who believe the gospel shall be saved; and that those who reject the gospel shall be damned.’ This distinction as so clearly set forth in our Catechism has not been heard in many churches for a long time already. I am convinced that this lack in the preaching has many lulled to sleep, and is deadly.
“Preaching is all-important, for ‘it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those that believe.’ (I Cor. 1:21) I know that I have been very incomplete. Much more should and could be said about this important matter. I hope (but I am afraid you may think different), that you do not get the opinion that I have anything against the dogma of the covenant; but I believe that a wrong-interpretation of this doctrine, among others, has led us astray in our Chr. Ref. Churches. What is your opinion?”
“Yours truly, N.”
First of all, l&t me apologize for not answering earlier. Shortly before your letter arrived, there was a flurry of questions for Question Box, which partly accounts for the delay. Besides, it takes a little study and research to answer questions of this kind; and this in turn, takes some time; and the latter is somewhat of a scarce commodity in my life, it seems. At any rate, I will try to begin the New Year right by serving you with an answer.
In the second place, you need not have an inferiority complex about being a layman. There is something Romish about the term “layman” even though it is used well-meaningly. All the people of God are prophets, you know; and we all have the unction of the Holy One. Besides, your question is nothing to be ashamed about.
But now let me turn to the substance of your letter.
In the first place, your question concerns covenant-preaching in the Christian Reformed Church. You will understand that I hear very little Christian Reformed preaching. I do recall that Dr. James Daane recently complained about the lack of “election” and of “covenant” in Christian Reformed preaching. I do know, too, from my reading of various Christian Reformed periodicals that there is a serious lack in this respect. And I do know, too, that the whole concept of the covenant ought to occupy a central place in the theology and preaching of a Reformed church: for the covenant idea belongs to the very genius of the Reformed faith. For the rest, I will have to go on the information which you furnish in your letter.
In the second place, you write that your question does not concern the doctrine of the covenant as such and that you do not have anything against the dogma of the covenant. Your question concerns the application of this doctrine. Yet you also suggest that “a wrong interpretation of this doctrine, among others, has led us astray in our Christian Reformed Churches.” Now I do not know what you understand by the covenant of grace. I am well acquainted with the Heynsian idea of the covenant which for many years was the prevailing view in the Christian Reformed Church and which was essentially Arminianism applied to the covenant. And there have been, through the years, many misconceptions concerning the covenant and the place of the children of believers in the covenant. I believe that this question of the idea of the covenant is most likely at the basis of the problem you raise in your letter. A wrong conception of the covenant is bound to affect preaching in the sphere of the covenant. Now I cannot here go into all these matters. I can suggest some good study material on this subject — Believers And Their Seed and The Triple Knowledge, Vol. II(2nd edition), both written by Rev. Herman Hoeksema and both published by our Reformed Free Publishing Association. Briefly, let me say that our conception of the covenant is that it is the eternal relation of friendship between God and His elect people in Christ. This covenant God alone establishes and realizes, sovereignly and unconditionally. And God realizes this covenant historically in the line of the generations of believers. This is put very briefly; but it is essential to the understanding of the problem which you raise and the answer furnished below.
In the third place, I would suggest that part of the solution to your problem lies in the fact that the whole idea of the antithesis has been virtually lost in the Christian Reformed Church because of the error of common grace. Preaching in the sphere of the covenant, if it is to serve to distinguish the carnal element from the spiritual seed, must be sharply antithetical.
Finally, I can best describe for you what I believe preaching in the sphere of the covenant ought to be by means of a lengthy quotation from a chapter on that very subject in The Triple Knowledge, Volume II, pages 435, ff. Because of the importance of this question I will take the space in our magazine for this lengthy quotation. I propose that you study this. And then, if you still have questions on the subject, call on Question Box again. Here is the quotation:
We believe that in the line of the covenant, in the Church, the seed of regeneration is implanted in the hearts of the children of the covenant in very infancy. There are, of course, exceptions. God remains free to work His grace in the hearts of His people either in infancy or in later years; but as a rule their rebirth takes place in earliest childhood.
As we said, we do not base our view of immediate regeneration on the presupposition that children are regenerated. On the contrary, the conception that regeneration is an immediate work of the Holy Spirit, independent of the preaching of the Word, is directly founded on Scripture. But just because Scripture teaches this truth and presents the rebirth of His people in the narrowest sense of the word, that is, in the sense of the implanting of the seed of regeneration, as an immediate work by the Holy Spirit, therefore it is evident that also the littlest infants can receive the grace of regeneration. And again, because we believe on the basis of Scripture that regeneration must be conceived of as an immediate work of the Spirit, and because for that very reason the regeneration of infants is possible, therefore we regard it as a common rule that in the line of the covenant children are reborn from infancy.
Then we can understand the real significance and operation of the preaching of the Word in the sphere of the Church, and in the line of the covenant as a means of grace. Means require conscious reaction. They are elements which God uses but which we also use. Bread is used by God to nourish our bodies, but we eat it. Thus the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Word to work faith and to strengthen it, but we also use it and are even responsible for the use of the Word of God. Now, it is only the living that can use means. The dead can neither eat nor drink. And the spiritually dead do, indeed, react upon the preaching of the Word, but only to reject it. They never come to repentance and faith. To them it is a saviour of death unto death. But just as the physically living are ab1e to use the means God provides for the sustenance of their earthly life, so the spiritually living are capable to use the means which the Holy Spirit provides for the working of faith and the development and upbuilding of the same.
Hence, life is first. Regeneration precedes all other work, of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner. And in regeneration the Holy Spirit implants the power of the faculty of faith, so that potentially the regenerated is a believer, even before he comes to the conscious activity of faith. And that this work of regeneration and the implanting of the faculty of faith is usually done in infancy, that is, in the line of the covenant, is the common view of the Reformed theologians. [Here follows a lengthy quotation from Ursinus, which we will omit. HCH]
Now, in the sphere of the covenant conscious faith and repentance are wrought gradually in little children through the influence of the preaching of the Word.
The influence of this preaching and its sphere is, of course, not limited to the official ministry in the church on Sunday and on the mission field. In the wider sense it includes many different spheres of labor. There is, for instance, the work of the theological school, where young men are trained for the ministry of the Word, where they are taught to exegete Holy Writ and to understand the doctrine of the Church, and where the truth is developed and maintained and defended over against all errors. There is the labor of preserving and translating as well as of interpreting the Bible, a labor that shows its fruit not only in many works on textual criticism, but also in hundreds of commentaries. There is the calling of the Church to estab1is.h and formulate the truth of the Word of God in her Confessions, not only to defend it over against opponents and gainsayers, but also to preserve it in generations. Of all these labors the Church, which is the pillar and ground of the truth, and to which the Word of God has been entrusted, is the subject. And of them all the preaching of the Word as a means of grace is the very heart.
In the sphere of the Church God in His infinite wisdom and mercy causes the covenant child to be born, and under the influence of the preaching of the Word in this wider sense the child is placed from very infancy.
This begins already in the administration of baptism, of which we must speak later in detail. But in baptism the Church already exercises the influence of the preaching of the Word by exacting from the parents the promise that they will bring up their children “in the aforesaid doctrine, or help or cause them to be instructed therein, to the utmost of their power.” And of this doctrine in which the children must be instructed the parents are asked to acknowledge that it “is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the Articles of the Christian Faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect doctrine of salvation.” Hence, in accord with, this pledge of the parents it is in the covenant home that the influence of the Word of God is exerted upon the child first of all. This is continued in Sunday School, and presently, through the ministry of the Word directly in catechism, and in the midst of the congregation through the preaching. And further, the influence of the preaching of the Word in the sphere of the Church is felt in many other ways, as the reading of the Bible in the home, the conversation of the saints among one another, and the study of Scripture in the various societies that ark organized within the church. And once more it must be emphasized that the very heart of this sphere and influence is the preaching of the Word as a means of grace, together with the administration of the sacraments.
Now, who shall say at how early an age the Holy Spirit is able to quicken the seed of regeneration and bring the faculty of faith to a more or less conscious activity?
Worldly educators realize rather clearly that from earliest infancy, yea, from very birth the whole outside world streams in upon the consciousness of the child and makes its impression upon that consciousness. Hence, modern educators stress the importance of surrounding the child, even in the cradle, with objects, sounds, shapes, and colors and smells that are calculated to make the most favorable impression upon the little infant. Why cannot the Holy Spirit impress the little child with all the influence of a truly covenant home, the singing of psalms or hymns, the playing of sacred music, the simple prayer uttered by the parent at the cradle, the folding of the little hands of the infant in prayer at the table in the high-chair, and many other influences of the Christian home, to bring the faculty of faith into some sort of conscious activity?
At any rate, it must be admitted that we know very little of the life of an infant, and it is certain that long before what is usually considered the age of discretion there can be a decided influence of the Word of God upon our covenant children.
It is especially for this reason that according to our conviction children of the covenant are regenerated from earliest infancy. Why should He according to the rule of the covenant bring little children under the influence of the preaching of the Word from their earliest infancy if they were not regenerated? As we said, the dead cannot use means; and there is no proper reaction upon the preaching of the Word by those that are spiritually dead. Only those that are spiritually living are capable to use the means which the Holy Spirit provides for the working of faith and for the development and upbuilding of the same. And therefore we repeat: as a rule, barring exceptions, the children of the covenant that are elect are also regenerated from their earliest infancy.
Thus the covenant child gradually comes to conscious faith, receives the promise, and assumes his “part” of the covenant, which according to our Baptism Form consists in this, that we are “admonished of and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that we trust in him and love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life.” When the child of the covenant reaches the age of discretion and has always walked in the way of the covenant, he is not and cannot be expected to be conscious of any sudden or remarkable change or conversion in his life. To be sure, the change which we call conversion must surely take place; as the Catechism has it in question 87: “Those cannot be saved who continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives are not converted to God. No unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or such like shall ever inherit the kingdom of God.” The covenant child, therefore, must be able to give account of himself and be conscious of true conversion, which consists of the mortification of the old and the quickening of the new man. He must be conscious of a sincere sorrow of heart that he has provoked God, by his sins. He must be cognizant of a desire to hate and flee from sin. He must be conscious of a sincere joy of heart in God through Christ and of a sincere delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. But in the way of the covenant this conversion is not sudden or marked, but gradual. The question is not when and where the covenant child was converted or how that change was effected in him, but whether he knows that he is converted and reveals his conversion by a walk in the way of continued conversion in the midst of the Church and in the world. And this entire change is wrought through the preaching of the Word.
It stands to reason that the preaching of the Word in the sphere of the covenant must be both distinctive and upbuilding.
On the one hand, it cannot proceed on the assumption that all the children of the covenant, that is, those that are born in the sphere of and under the covenant, are elect and regenerated. The theory of presumptive regeneration, according to which it is presumed that all the children that are born under the covenant are regenerated, is certainly not Scriptural. All are not Israel that are of Israel; and not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Nor can it be said that those who are under the covenant but who are and remain carnal and never come to saving faith or true conversion belong to the exceptions. The history of the Old Testament Church teaches quite the opposite: always it was the carnal seed that abounded in the covenant of the old dispensation, and the remnant according to the election of grace was saved. Nor does it appear different when we look at the Church in general of the new dispensation. If we consider baptized Christendom as the whole, it would seem that those who have apostatized from the faith are far more numerous than the faithful believers. Always, therefore, there is the carnal seed in the Church. And the theory of presumptive regeneration, that presumes that all the children born in the covenant are elect, is not only unscriptural, but it is also dangerous. Dangerous it is, not because, as the popular saying goes, it tends to let the people go to hell with an imaginary heaven; for that is quite impossible, at least where the truth is preached. But the danger is that because it presumes what is not true according to Scripture, it leaves the carnally minded men in the Church, and thus the Church of Christ is corrupted. And therefore, the preaching must be directed not only to the elect but also to the reprobate, not only to the godly but also to the ungodly. It must be so distinctive that under its influence the reprobate and ungodly cannot remain, but will reveal themselves as haters of the truth of God and His Christ.
Besides, even the elect and regenerated are not perfect. There is even as regards them much flesh in the Church. Daily they have to strive with the desires and lusts of the flesh, and must be admonished steadfastly to walk in the way of the covenant, to hate sin and to fight against it and flee from it.
Hence, the preaching in the sphere of the covenant must always be distinctive. This does not necessarily mean that it must divide the Church into elect and reprobate, converted and unconverted, and address them separately. Rather it means that the whole Church, as it organically exists in the world, must be brought under the influence of the very same preaching. The same Word must be directed to all; all must be exhorted to be converted and to convert themselves, to repent in dust and ashes; and all must be admonished continually to walk in the way of sanctification and to live antithetically, as of the party of the living God in the midst of the world. For: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. ”
Such preaching will, of course, have the result that it is a savor of life unto life for those whom God has chosen unto everlasting salvation and a savor of death unto death for the rest.
And under such preaching alone the Church will be built up and believers will be edified.