In the Standard Bearer of March 15, 1991 appeared a long letter from Canadian Reformed (“Liberated”) theologian Dr. J. DeJong in response to my editorials on the Reformed doctrine of the covenant. The letter defends the “Liberated” teaching on God’s covenant with the children of believers against my charge that this teaching “conflicts with the Reformed gospel of salvation by sovereign grace.” It also criticizes the covenant doctrine of the Protestant Reformed Churches as an “election theology” of the covenant. The editorial in that SB clarified the issue between the “Liberated” and the PRC. The issue is the “Liberated” doctrine that the promise of God at baptism is made to all the children on the condition of faith.
In this editorial, I begin to respond to Dr. DeJong’s defense of the “Liberated” doctrine of a conditional covenant against my charges that this teaching “conflicts with cardinal doctrines of the Word of God, doctrines which are precious to every Reformed man and woman.” Although I will be summarizing Dr. DeJong’s defense at every point, I can do so only very briefly. The reader, therefore, should refer to DeJong’s defense in its entirety in the previous issue of the SB.
One charge against the “Liberated” covenant doctrine was that a conditional promise to all the children necessarily makes the saving grace of God dependent upon the work and worth of the child. The fulfillment of the promise in the actual saving of the child depends upon the child’s believing. DeJong supposes that the “Liberated” escape this charge by maintaining that, although faith is a condition, it is not a “meritorious” condition.
Reformed theologians in the past have sometimes referred to faith as a “condition,” meaning by this that faith is the necessary means by which God realizes the promise in the elect sinner. The “Liberated” doctrine of a conditional covenant means something radically different. Inasmuch as “Liberated” doctrine maintains that God makes the promise of the covenant to all the children alike, its teaching that faith is the condition necessarily makes of faith a work of the child upon which depends the saving grace of God. To make faith a condition in the context of a promise to all the children is to fix faith as an act of man that precedes, grounds, attracts, and renders effectual the grace of God.
The “Liberated” cannot escape this charge by merely denying that faith is “meritorious.” For there is another way to compromise the sovereignty of grace in salvation besides teaching that faith earns salvation. This other way is to teach that man by his act of faith distinguisheshimself from others as a worthy recipient of grace and that man by his act of faith makes the offered grace of God effectual in his soul. A man’s marital love for a woman is not gracious if the woman bought it with a large amount of money. But neither is it gracious if she attracted it by her irresistible loveliness. Jehovah’s covenant love for Jerusalem was gracious, not only because Jerusalem did not earn that love, but also because that loathsome girl, daughter of an Amorite and a Hittite, polluted in her own blood, neither attracted the love of Jehovah nor did anything to make His love effectual in her salvation (Ezek 16:1ff.).
The Canons of Dordt defend the sovereignty of grace in salvation, not only by repudiating the profane notion of merit, but also by condemning the more subtle error that maintains that faith is man’s act of distinguishing himself from others as a worthy recipient of grace and man’s act of “appropriating” grace.
The Synod (of Dordt) rejects the errors of those . . . who teach . . . that (God) chose out of all possible conditions . . . the act of faith which from its very nature is undeserving . . . as a condition of salvation (I, Rejection of Errors/3).
The Synod (of Dordt) rejects the errors of those. . . who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as He is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; but that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception (II, Rejection of Errors/6).
To the charge that a conditional promise to all the children is a denial of the graciousness of salvation within the sphere of the covenant, the “Liberated” respond by affirming that it is God who enables certain children (the elect) to fulfill the condition. Dr. DeJong writes, “We also confess that such faith is a work and gift of the LORD, according to His sovereign good pleasure and electing love.”
This response fails for four reasons.
First, it commits the “Liberated” to the very same “election theology of covenant” that they criticize in the PRC. If this response is seriously meant, it teaches that God all along intended the promise for the elect children alone and that God realizes the promise in the elect children alone. But this is exactly the doctrine of the covenant so vigorously rejected by the “Liberated.”
Second, this response plays fast and loose with language. “Condition” means an act of one party upon which depends the act of another party. Everyone understands perfectly well that a nation’s offer of a cease-fire on the condition that the enemy lay down its arms means that peace depends upon an act of that enemy. The act of the enemy is decisive in the matter, regardless of the overwhelming superiority of the nation that stipulates the condition. It is I precisely in order to express this that one speaks of a “condition.” From the point of view of the integrity of language alone, one may not defend his deliberate use of “condition” by insisting, when “condition” is challenged, that it is after all God who fulfills the condition.
Third, even the explanation that God fulfills the condition in the child fails to rescue the “Liberated” doctrine of the covenant from its teaching that the grace of God depends upon the act of the child. For now it is only asserted that the work of the child upon which the grace of God (the covenant promise) depends is a work that the child is enabled to do by the help of God. But the grace of God still depends upon the work of the child!
I remind Dr. DeJong that also the Roman Catholic Church is willing to acknowledge that the works of the sinner upon which, according to Rome, depends his justification are performed by the sinner with the help of the grace of God. But this in no way relieves Rome of the heresy of teaching that righteousness depends upon the works of man himself.
Fourth, although the “Liberated” are ready to ascribe the fulfilling of the condition to God in controversy, this is strikingly lacking when they are developing and applying their doctrine of the covenant among themselves.
This is seen in the September 15, 1990 issue ofUna Sancta, magazine of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. The editor, Rev. C. Bouwman, presents the “Liberated” view of the covenant in an article entitled, “Not Saved by the Covenant.” He writes, “We and our children do not receive the content of the promises God gives in the covenant unless (his emphasis—DJE) we answer to the obligation of that covenant.” Editor Bouwman then refers to the covenant demand in the Reformed baptism form, namely, that “we cleave to this one God,” etc., and describes it as “a demand for regeneration, for being born again.” Thus he teaches, as “Liberated” doctrine, that reception of the content of the covenant promise, i.e., salvation, depends upon the baptized child’s regenerating himself.
That Rev. Bouwman means exactly what he says is plain when he immediately adds:
Here we may recall such biblical figures as Esau, Saul and Judas Iscariot. Though all three were equally as much covenant children as were, say, Jacob, David and Peter, these did not obtain the goods promised to them at their circumcision. For they evidently did not respond to the obligation of the covenant.
The “Liberated” minister becomes exceedingly bold’
Not a single one of us, though he be a covenant child a hundred times over, shall receive forgiveness of sins and life eternal simply by virtue of the promises of the covenant and no more. In the covenant the Lord has been pleased to make us all responsible (his emphasis—DJE); He demands our response, demands faith and conversion, and does not impart the contents of His promises unless these obligations have been met.
This is the “Liberated” doctrine of the covenant in practical application. So frightened is the “Liberated” theologian by the specter of “presumptive regeneration” that, rather than gratefully confess regeneration to be the work of God that is signified and sealed by baptism, he makes regeneration the demand of God upon the baptized child. The truth is that the demand which our baptism form calls our part in the covenant presupposes the regeneration of the child. The “new obedience” that consists of cleaving to the triune God is not the act of regeneration, but the life of good works that flows out of regeneration. Regeneration is not our part in the covenant. Regeneration is God the Holy Spirit’s part in the covenant. This is the teaching of the baptism form: “In like manner, when we are baptized in the name of the Holy Ghost, the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ.”
But our concern here is that when the “Liberated” apply their covenant conception practically, “condition” keeps its real meaning. The salvation of the baptized child depends squarely, exclusively, and emphatically upon the child’s complying with the condition demanded of him. Astounding to relate, this condition is nothing less than that he give birth to himself spiritually! Nothing is said about God’s fulfilling the condition. The closest that the “Liberated” minister comes to suggesting that God has something to do with the realizing of the covenant promise in the child is a statement later in the editorial that parents are entitled to “implore God to work regeneration in the children He has given us.” Whatever force this might have for ascribing the actual salvation of the child to God is blunted by the sentence that immediately follows: “But we are not to think that our children will one day be saved just because God was pleased to establish His covenant with them.”
Dr. DeJong is correct when he closes his letter to the SB with the words, “The crux of this debate is ultimately very practical. . . . How are we to approach (our children) in teaching and instruction?”
Dare a Reformed parent approach his child as the doctrine of a conditional covenant requires him to do? Dare he convince his child that the covenant promise of God and the whole of God’s covenant salvation depend upon the act of the child? Dare he teach the child to regard his faith, repentance, and holy life as a condition unto salvation? Dare he instruct his child that it is not the covenant promise alone upon which everything depends; that it is not the covenant promise alone that saves him; and that, in fact, a child can be the object of the promise of God and yet perish, because he himself did not fulfill a condition?