Faith a Condition?

In his letter in the March 15, 1991 issue of theStandard Bearer, “Liberated” theologian Dr. J. DeJong responded to my charge that the “Liberated” doctrine of the covenant makes the covenant dependent upon the will and work of the baptized child. This, I contended, is the clear and necessary implication of the teaching that the faith of the child is the condition for the fulfillment of the promise that God is supposed to make to every baptized child. I appealed to the Reformed confession, the Canons of Dordt, which repeatedly deny, in so many words, that faith is a “condition” unto salvation (cf. I/9,10; I, Rejection of Errors/3; III, IV/14; and III, IV, Rejection of Errors/6). Appeal to the confession is a weighty, indeed conclusive, argument among Reformed Christians.

The response of Dr. DeJong to this appeal to the confession was that he directed the attention of our readers to other passages in the Canons: I/3, 4, 12; II/5; and V/14. He asked why I quoted the passages I did, and passed over other passages. The answer is simple and obvious. I directed attention to those passages that treat the issue under discussion: “Is faith a condition according to the Reformed creeds?” Nowhere do the Canons teach that faith is a condition. Again and again, the creed denies, more than onceexplicitly, that faith is a condition. The Canons instruct Reformed Christians to see the teaching that faith is a condition as an aspect of the grave error that compromises the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace. The Canons are a sworn foe of “conditions.” This is undeniable. Everyone may read it for himself.

The reason why1 did not refer to the passages brought up by Dr. DeJong (and the reason why he should not have referred to them either) is that none of these passages teaches that faith is a condition. One would not expect that the logical Canons would contradict themselves by denying that faith is a condition in one place, while affirming that faith is a condition in another place. Nor do they. In I/3,4, the Canons teach that God gives faith to some men (the elect, according to I/6) by the preaching of the gospel and that through this faith they are delivered from the wrath of God and have eternal life conferred upon them. There is nothing here about faith as a condition.

Canons II/5 speaks of a “command” to believe on Jesus Christ that comes to all who hear the preaching. It is the duty of every man who hears the preaching to believe on Christ presented in that preaching. Also, the command sets before every hearer the only way of salvation, so that those who refuse to believe have only themselves to blame, as II/6 goes on to assert. But the command that comes to all is intended and used by God to give faith to some only, in sovereign, particular grace. This is the clear teaching about the “command” in II/7, 8:

But as many as truly believe. . . are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God, given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own. For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith.

The “command” of Canons II/ 5 is not a “condition.” So far is it from being true that the command is a condition that 1) God eternally decreed to give faith to the elect only; 2) Christ earned faith for the elect only; and 3) the Holy Spirit irresistibly bestows faith upon the elect as a gift, thus bringing them infallibly to salvation. Applied to the children of believers, this means that God graciously purposes and promises to give faith to the elect children only; that Jesus purchased faith by His death for the elect children only; and that the Spirit gives faith to the elect children only, through the Word and sacrament, in particular, sovereign grace.

Canons V/ 14 does not even refer to faith, but rather reminds us that God uses the means of the Word and sacraments to preserve and perfect the work of grace in us. Not even remotely does this article so much as hint at the teaching that our faith is a condition for receiving the contents of a promise made to everybody.

There is not a shred of support in the Canons of Dordt for the teaching that faith is a condition unto salvation, whether in covenant lines or on the mission field.

Condition or Instrument?

The reason for this is that the Canons are thoroughly biblical. And the Bible does not teach faith as a condition unto salvation. It does indeed use what Dr. DeJong calls “conditional language”: “If you will not believe, you will not be established” (Is. 7:9). But this language makes faith known as the way to salvation and as the instrumental means of salvation, not as the condition unto salvation.

Nor is this distinction negligible—a distinction without a difference; It is fundamental to the gospel of grace, and, therefore, to Reformed orthodoxy, that faith is not an act of man upon which righteousness and salvation depend, but the means by which God justifies and saves a man and the way in which the sinner embraces the righteousness and salvation of God presented in the gospel. Nowhere does the New Testament teach that the sinner is justified or saved “on account of” faith. Righteousness and salvation are rather “by” faith (as means) or “out of” faith (as source).

The Reformed confessions insist on the distinction between faith as the means, or instrument, by which the sinner receives righteousness and salvation and faith as the ground, basis, or cause of righteousness and salvation. This distinction spells the difference between the truth of gracious salvation and the lie of salvation’s dependency upon the will and work of man (cf. the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 61; Belgic Confession, Art. 22).

Dr. DeJong is very seriously in error, therefore, in his translation and explanation of Romans 4:16. I had appealed to this text in support of the Protestant Reformed teaching that the covenant promise of God is to elect children only. For the apostle writes that the promise is “sure to all the seed.” If the promise at baptism is for every child, conditioned by the child’s faith, the promise surely is not sure to anyone. DeJong, however, thinks that I “have strange glasses on” to read the text as proof of an unconditional promise to the elect. DeJong gives the text this way:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his (Abraham’s) descendants—not only to the adherents of the law but also those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all.

DeJong then explains, “Paul stresses thecondition (his emphasis—DJE) of the covenant: the call to faith!”

There is nothing strange about my glasses. What is strange is his translation, specifically the words, “That is why it depends on faith.” The apostle did not write, “It depends on faith.” He wrote, as the Ring James Bible correctly translates, “It is of (Greek: ek) faith.” The inheritance that God promised to Abraham and his seed comes to us out of faith as the source, and not out of the law. Faith is not the condition, but the source of the inheritance. And the difference is that “faith-as-condition” means that reception of the inheritance depends upon an act that we perform, whereas “faith-as-source” means that the inheritance comes to us from Christ (to whom faith unites us), without any working to fulfill conditions on our part. If the inheritance depends upon faith, it is not “by grace,” as the apostle states in Romans 4:16.

It must be sharply proclaimed (and everyone who hopes to be saved must believe it): Never does the gospel of the Scriptures teach that the promise, righteousness, or salvation dependsupon faith. Faith is not a basis, ground, or condition of salvation. So to present and view faith is fatally to compromise the gospel of grace.

This is not an insight peculiar to the PRC. J. I. Packer expresses it clearly in his recent book, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Books, 1990). He is explaining how it happened that Puritanism in England fell away from the truth. Their first error was that they began to deny that faith is the gift of God. Their second was that they came to deny limited atonement. In stating the third cause of Puritanism’s apostasy, Packer speaks to the issue, whether faith is a condition unto salvation:

The third relevant denial (by an apostatizing Puritanism—DJE) was that the covenant of grace is a relationship which God imposes unilaterally and unconditionally, by effectual calling, saying to his elect, “I will …and you shall…” The Arminian alternative was that the covenant of grace is a new law, offering present pardon on condition of present faith and final salvation on condition of sustained faith (p. 156).

Christ’s Death for the Children of Believers

Two other charges against the “Liberated” doctrine of the covenant, Dr. DeJong brushes aside as having little or no weight in the debate. But they are not as flimsy as Dr. DeJong supposes. One is the charge that the “Liberated” teaching necessarily implies that the death of Christ fails to secure the redemption of some persons for whom He died. At the heart of the “Liberated” covenant view is the teaching that God makes the covenant promise to every child at baptism. But our Reformed confession teaches that the baptism of the children of the faithful is based upon Christ’s death for them and that our children are to receive baptism as a sign and seal of that which Christ has done for them on the cross (Belgic Confession, Art. 34).

The Reformed baptism form similarly teaches that the promise of baptism that the Holy Spirit will I dwell in us and sanctify us is the promise to apply to us “that which we have in Christ.” The prayer after baptism expresses that the baptism of the children seals and confirms, not a futureforgiveness of sins on the condition that the children will someday believe, but a pastforgiveness of the sins of the children “through the blood of . . . Jesus,” regardless of the fact that the children cannot as yet believe.

If, now, as the “Liberated” teach, the promise of baptism is for every child; if the sanctification of which baptism is a sign and seal is promised to every child; if, in short, the covenant is made with every baptized child, Christ must have died for every child of believing parents. But since some baptized children perish in unbelief, the death of Christ for some persons failed to secure their redemption.

Dr. DeJong must not respond to this charge by stating that at baptism God promises the children that He will wash them in Jesus’ blood if they believe. No one disputes that the promise at baptism is a promise that God will fulfill and that the children will enjoy in the way of repentance and faith. But the “Liberated” theologian must explain the relationship between the promise to wash every child from his sins and the death of Christ, the ground of the covenant and the basis of the promise.

Question 66 of the Heidelberg Catechism is pointed and conclusive regarding the truth that the promise is based upon the death of Christ. “The sacraments . . . declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.” This promise, declared by baptism, is that God “grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.” The ground of the promise to “us” is the death of Christ for us. If, now, the promise of God at baptism is to every child, God promises every child that He grants him forgiveness and eternal life on the ground that Christ died for him.

Does Dr. DeJong believe that Christ shed His blood for the washing of all the children of the faithful? Is baptism a sign and sacrament of a sanctification that Christ has accomplished for every child of believers? Does every child have in Christ the washing away of his sins? Has the Almighty God and merciful Father forgiven the sins of all the children of godly parents without exception? Were the blood and death of Christ, Mediator of the new covenant, the redemption of the transgressions of all the children of believers (Heb. 9:14, 15)?

If so, the death of Christ failed to save many for whom Christ died. If not, the promise at baptism, according to the Reformed confessions, cannot be for every child. For the promise, based as it is on the death of Christ, is exactly as extensive as was that death.

Does the Word of God Fail?

The other charge that Dr. DeJong dismisses, as a “caricature of our standpoint,” is that the “Liberated” doctrine teaches that the “word and promise of God have failed” in many cases. The point here is simply that, on the “Liberated” understanding of the covenant, God promises the establishment of the covenant and the covenant blessings to many children who nevertheless perish in hell. Either God never fulfilled His promise, or the children fell away from the grace of the promise. In either case, the word of God has failed.

It is nothing less than astonishing that Dr. DeJong quotes Romans 9:6 in his response to this charge: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect.” This is indeed the apostle’s emphatic declaration that the word of God did not fail. It is the apostle’s declaration that the word of God’s promise did not fail. It is the apostle’s declaration that the word of God’s promise to establish the covenant, with believers, and their children did not fail. But God’s word of promise did not fail, the apostle explains in the following verses, because that promise never was made to every child of Abraham (and of believing parents). The children of Abraham (and of believing parents), to whom the promise is made, are not all the physical children, but only some of them the “children of the promise” in distinction from “the children of the flesh” (v. 8). ‘The word of promise exclusively refers and is addressed to certain of Abraham’s (and our) children, those namely whom God has eternally elected (vss. 9ff .). Believers and their elect children are God’s Israel. The other children are merely “of Israel.” But the word of promise is alone to “Israel” (v. 6).

It is the argument of the apostle Paul in Romans 9:6ff. that, if the promise is for all the children without exception, no other conclusion is possible than that the word of God has failed.

It is, therefore, the judgment of the apostle upon the “Liberated” doctrine of the covenant that it teaches that the word of God’s promise fails.

I beseech Dr. DeJong to take this judgment seriously.

—DJE