Previous article in this series: February 15, 2006, p 220.
The Declaration of Principles intends to set forth what the confessions teach, and thus what is binding in the Protestant Reformed Churches, on a few specific doctrines. The Declaration delineates doctrines that are connected, directly or indirectly, with God’s covenant of grace.
When the Dutch immigrants asked, “What is binding in the PRC?” they had in mind particularly the doctrine of the covenant. Everyone knew that the Reformed confessions did not contain a complete treatment of the covenant. However, the PRC were convicted that some of the covenant conceptions being proposed could not fit within the bounds of the confessions. The Declaration of Principles, in harmony with its purpose and scope, does not offer a definition of the covenant. Neither does it spell out a particular conception of the covenant that is Reformed, and exclude all else. Rather, it sets forth the confessional perimeter for a Reformed doctrine of the covenant.
In the first section, the Declaration demonstrated from the confessions that God’s saving grace is only for the elect, and that there is no grace at all for the reprobate. It demonstrated likewise—from the confessions—that although the gospel is to be preached promiscuously wherever God sends it, yet the preaching of the gospel is not a gracious offer of salvation to all who hear the preaching. On the contrary, the preaching contains a command to repent and believe. It also includes a promise of salvation, but that promise is particular—not to all who hear the preaching, nor to every baptized child. Rather the promise, say the confessions, is to the one who believes. That this can refer only to the elect of God is plain from the confessions’ teaching that God gives faith (belief) only to His elect.
Thus in its first section, the Declaration (without naming it) has already demonstrated that one particular conception of the covenant is outside the confessions, namely, the Heynsian view. Prof. William Heyns of Calvin Theological School taught that the essence of the covenant was God’s conditional promise of salvation, and that God made this personal promise to every child of the church at baptism. In addition, he maintained that the common grace given to all—elect and reprobate alike—enabled each child to make a decision on whether or not to fulfill the condition, namely, of faith. However, the Heynsian covenant conception is contrary to the confessions, since they teach a grace of God only to the elect, and maintain that the promise of the gospel is particular, namely, to the (elect) believer alone.
In the second section, the Declaration continues to lay down the foundations for the doctrine of the covenant, before proceeding to treat it more directly in the third part.
Section II begins:
They [the PRC] teach on the basis of the same confessions:
A. That election, which is the unconditional and unchangeable decree of God to redeem in Christ a certain number of persons, is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation, whence flow all the gifts of grace, including faith.
As a basis for this assertion, the Declaration references the Canons, I, 6 & 7, already quoted, and the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 54, which confesses the redeemed “church chosen to everlasting life.” In addition, it quotes the first part of the Baptism Form:
For when we are baptized in the name of the Father, God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us that He doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for His children and heirs….
After summarizing the blessings of salvation promised by the triune God, the Form concludes this part: “till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle among the assembly of the elect in life eternal” (emphasis mine). Take note, that the same “we” who are promised the blessings of salvation are the “we” who will be “among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” Hence, the “we” includes not all baptized children, but only the elect baptized children.
The Atonement—for the elect alone
Next the Declaration presents the confessions’ teaching on the extent of the blessings of Christ’s atonement. The Declaration states: “That Christ died only for the elect and that the saving efficacy of the death of Christ extends to them only.” It then quotes Canons II, 8, the beautiful confession that fully supports the statement of the Declaration.
The Declaration next draws out some implications from the Canons article. It states: “This article very clearly teaches: 1. That all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone.”
How does the Declaration arrive at this?
Canons II, 8, emphasizes that the benefits of the death of Christ are not for all, but “extend to all the elect,” adding, that God bestows “upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation.” And, that Christ “should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.” The article then spells out some of the blessings of salvation. Significantly, Article 8 connects the atonement with the covenant by maintaining that it is by the same blood of the cross that Christ “confirmed the new covenant.”
From that connection, as well as from the Baptism Form quoted above, it is evident that the blessings of the covenant are the blessings of salvation. It has already been confirmed from the confessions that there is no grace to the reprobate, no matter if the reprobate is born in a covenant home or in the home of an unbeliever. Since there is no grace to the reprobate, the Declaration rightly concludes that there can be no covenant blessings to the same.
As an aside, we point out that no one denies that God gives many good gifts to the reprobate baptized child. He has the gifts of his covenant home and the instruction of believing parents. He has the privilege of attending Christian schools, catechism, and worship services. Displayed before him are the pictures of redemption in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
However, these good gifts do not become a blessing to the reprobate child raised in a covenant home. That is obvious from the fact that God’s curse—His word of death—rests upon that reprobate child from the moment he first takes breath. God’s condemnation of that child increases as he is instructed and brought up in the truth of Scripture. This condemnation is heaver still when the child openly repudiates his baptism, his instruction, and all the good gifts of the covenant, such as he had them. He never had the essence of the covenant — fellowship with God — but he knows about even that, and he rejects Jehovah and despises fellowship with Him.
Although God gives good gifts, He does not intend them to be blessings to the reprobate child. In fact, all the good things of the covenant upbringing are the Holy Spirit’s instruments to harden the child. Sooner or later he reaches the point where he cannot abide in the church. He can no longer pretend to be a believer. He openly rebels.
We digress. However, the point of the Declaration is that Canons II, 8 teaches “that all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone.”
Based on the same Article 8, the Declaration declares: “That God’s promise is unconditionally for them [the elect] only: for God cannot promise what was not objectively merited by Christ.”
Notice that this statement has two parts, the declaration and its proof. The proof, that “God cannot promise what was not objectively merited in Christ,” is beyond dispute for any Reformed believer.
The contention that “God’s promise is unconditionally for the elect only” arises out of the conflict of the 1950s. The defenders of a conditional covenant maintained that God promised all the blessings of salvation—including forgiveness of sins and eternal life—to each baptized child, objectively. That is to say, the child was not given them subjectively, so that the child actually possessed these blessings. However, he would be promised them objectively, in the sense that these blessing could be the possession of the child. To use an illustration, it would be like a father promising an inheritance of a million dollars to his five year old son. He can have it when he grows older, he is promised. Some insisted that God promises forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to every baptized child objectively, conditioned on the child’s faith and obedience.
The Declaration argues that such an idea is contrary to the confessions, “for God cannot promise what is not objectively merited by Christ,” which is to say, if Christ did not pay for the sins of a particular man, God cannot promise him life. Hence, God’s promise is only to the elect, and that without conditions.
The third inference of Canons II, Article 8 flows directly from what has been said. It is:
That the promise of God bestows the objective right of salvation not upon all the children that are born under the historical dispensation of the covenant, that is, not upon all that are baptized, but only upon the spiritual seed.
This follows logically from the truth confessed by every Reformed believer, namely, that Christ earned salvation only for the elect. However, since this is so crucial a point in the debate, the Declaration is not content to ground it only upon Canons II, 8. It cites the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 65 & 66, which explain how elect believers partake of the blessings of the cross. The Catechism insists that “we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only,” and that the Spirit “works faith in our hearts.”
Then the Declaration adds:
If we compare with these statements from the Heidelberger what was taught concerning the saving efficacy of the death of Christ in Canons II, A, 8, it is evident that the promise of the gospel which is sealed by the sacraments concerns only the believers, that is, the elect.
If the word “concerns” seems vague, as it was alleged by some in the 1950s, the context makes it clear. The Declaration already demonstrated that the promise is to the believer, and the promise is that every believer shall be saved. Even though that promise is spoken in the hearing of many, it does not follow that all who hear it are guaranteed what is promised. The elect believers are promised eternal life. Thus, the promise “concerns” them only.
In that connection, the Declaration turns to Q. & A. 74, which is extremely significant in the debate over whether or not all baptized children are promised the blessings of the covenant.
Q. 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
A. Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.
Conditional covenant supporters insist that Answer 74 must be read as follows:
… since they [i.e., all baptized children] … are included in the covenant and church of God, and redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit … is promised to them [i.e., all baptized children]….
The Declaration rejects that interpretation, insisting that in Answer 74 the brackets should rather contain the words “i.e., all elect baptized children.” This stands at the heart of the issue.
Notice, first, that the Catechism does not state either position explicitly, and thus an evaluation is necessary to determine the Reformed interpretation. Secondly, the proper way to discover the Reformed interpretation is by making a comparison with what the Reformed confessions as a whole teach.
The Reformed confessions insist that “the saving efficacy of the death of Christ is for the elect alone.” Since no Reformed man denies this, and since Answer 74 speaks of the promise (again—that particular promise) of “redemption from sin by the blood of Christ,” the reference in the answer is not to all children that are baptized, but all the spiritual seed, that is, the elect.
The point of Q. & A. 74 is that infants are to be baptized because salvation and the Spirit are promised to elect infants, not merely to electadults. If God waited until the elect were adults before He gave the promise, baptism would not be administered to infants. It is that simple.
The Declaration presents proof from the confessions that the Protestant Reformed understanding of Q. & A. 74 is Reformed.
The (Belgic) Confession of Faith, Article 33, teaches that the sacraments are “not vain or insignificant, so as to deceive us. For Jesus Christ is the true object presented by them.” Thus the sacraments are “visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us.” If the “us” in this article is every baptized child, then the article teaches that God by His Spirit is working in both the elect and the reprobate child what the sacrament signifies. That would be a flat contradiction of the Reformed confessions’ teaching that God’s grace is sovereign and particular.
Similarly, Article 34 teaches that baptism is a “testimony to us that he will forever be our gracious God and Father.” And later, “Therefore the ministers, on their part, administer the sacrament … but our Lord giveth that which is signified by the sacrament …,” after which the article lists the blessings of salvation. Obviously, this testimony and gift of God can only be to God’s elect.
The Declaration points also to the instruction of Article 35 of the Confession of Faith, which indicates concerning the Lord’s Supper that “the ungodly indeed receives the sacrament to his condemnation, but he doth not receive the truth of the sacrament.”
A final reference in this connection is made to the Baptism Form, which testifies concerning “our young children” that “as they are without their knowledge partakers of the condemnation in Adam, so are they again received unto grace in Christ….” How could anyone argue that all baptized children are “received into grace in Christ”? The confessions reject that with the clear teaching that God’s grace is for the elect alone.
There remains yet in this second section of the Declaration the affirmation of a third foundational truth, namely, “That faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.”
This truth is self-evident to one who rejects the conditional election of Arminius with consistency. However, a couple comments are in order.
It is worth noting that the Declaration quotes Q. & A. 20 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Q. 20. Are all men then, as they perished in Adam, saved by Christ?
A. No; only those who are ingrafted into him, and receive all his benefits, by a true faith.
The significance of this Q. & A. is that faith is not first an act of believing. It is that in ourexperience. However, the Catechism reminds us that faith is first a spiritual bond by which the elect is grafted into Christ. That being the case, to speak of faith as a condition that man must fulfill is utter nonsense.
To complete the proof that faith is all of God and thus cannot be a condition, the Declaration quotes the Canons, III, IV, Article 14.
Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe, and the act of believing also.
… to be continued.