Previous article in this series: March 1, p. 244.
The Declaration of Principles has four sections. The third part of the Declaration begins: “Seeing this is the clear teaching of our confessions…We repudiate … And we maintain….”
The “clear teaching” which forms the basis of the third part was set forth in the previous articles. Briefly, it is as follows. In part one, the Declaration demonstrates that the doctrine of common grace and the well-meant offer as adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924 is contrary to the Reformed confessions’ teaching on grace, total depravity, and the particularity of the gospel.
In part two, the Declaration sets forth the confessional teaching on election, the atonement, and faith. Concerning election, the Declaration states:
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.
Next, the Declaration asserts “that Christ died only for the elect and that the saving efficacy of the death of Christ extends to them only.” From this the Declaration rightly concludes that the blessings of salvation, which are the blessings of the covenant, are, and can only be, for the elect.
The Declaration demonstrates that Q. & A. 74, the Heidelberg Catechism’s instruction on infant baptism, teaches that the blessings of salvation are not promised to every baptized child, but to every elect baptized child.
Also in section two, the Declaration maintains that the promise of the gospel is unconditional. This is grounded on the confessions, which teach that both election and the efficacy of the death of Christ are unconditional. Consequently, the promise of the gospel can only be unconditional.
Finally, concerning faith, the Declaration maintains that faith is neither a prerequisite unto salvation, nor a condition unto salvation. Rather faith, according to the confessions, is a gift of God. It is the God-given instrument whereby we appropriate Christ.
The Ground for Infant Baptism
The third section of the Declaration of Principles treats, among other things, the Reformed view of infant baptism. Among Reformed theologians, the question often arises as to the ground of infant baptism. Closely related to this is the proper way to view the child being baptized. These questions involve the doctrine of the covenant.
One view of baptism holds that baptism is meaningless unless it includes a promise from God to every child. Such a promise is conditional. During the controversy of the 1950s in the PRC, some maintained that such a promise was an “objective bequest” from God, which gave to every baptized child the right to Christ and all the blessings of salvation. This was the view maintained in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (Liberated).
Another view had previously been proposed by Dr. Abraham Kuyper. He claimed that the church must presuppose that every child of believers is already regenerated when brought to baptism. Dr. Kuyper maintained this because he insisted that baptism must seal an already existing grace in the child. Thus he concluded that if the parents did not assume that their infant was already regenerated, they would have no reason to bring the child for baptism.
The PRC insist that the confessions reject both of these positions. The Declaration “repudiates” the notion that “we may presuppose that all the children that are baptized are regenerated, for we know on the basis of Scripture, as well as in the light of all history and experience, that the contrary is true.”
This needs to be underscored, for there are many who hold to a conditional covenant who apparently believe that there are but two positions in this world on covenant children—theirs, and Abraham Kuyper’s. The thinking is that since the PRC reject the conditional covenant, they must hold to Kuyper’s notion of presupposed regeneration. Thus, I reiterate, in the Declaration of Principles the PRC officially “repudiate” presupposed regeneration.
The PRC also reject the view that the promise of the covenant is conditional and for all who are baptized.
The central ground for rejecting both positions is that the confessions tie not only regeneration but all the blessings of salvation to the sovereign decree of election. Once again, the Declaration points to the Canons, I, 6-8. These articles insist that election is sovereign, unconditional, and free, and that only the elect receive faith. This leads to the necessary conclusion that not all the baptized children of believers are promised salvation, nor may all be presupposed to be regenerated. These things (the promise of salvation and regeneration) are only for the elect children of believers.
Further proof is drawn from the doctrinal part of the baptism form, which speaks much of the promises of God. It is not possible to construe these promise of God as conditional—the form does not hint at conditions. On the contrary, the form describes them as God’s certain promises of all the blessings of salvation.
In this connection, the Declaration makes a significant point about the prayer of thanksgiving in the baptism form, after baptism has been administered. The prayer begins:
Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise thee that thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism.
The Declaration asserts that the baptized children referred to in this prayer can only be the elect baptized children; “we cannot presuppose that it is for all.” The reason is obvious from the opening words of the prayer: God forgives us and our children all our sins. God never forgives the sins of the reprobate seed. That they grow up in the home of a believer, and even that they are baptized, does not change that. Only the elect are forgiven.
What then is the proper ground for infant baptism? The Declaration insists that “the ground of infant baptism is the command of God and the fact that according to Scripture He established His covenant in the line of continued generations.”
God commands it. That is enough. If God only demanded it and never gave us a reason, that command would be sufficient.
However, God deals with us as friends, not slaves, and thus He gives a reason, namely, that “He established His covenant in the line of continued generations.” This is “according to” such a Scripture text as Genesis 17:7. Here God did not merely inform Abraham that his seed would be in the covenant, and would be promised salvation conditionally. Were that the case, the covenant would not be ratified until and unless the children fulfilled the condition of faith.
No, God’s promise to Abraham is powerful and certain. God promised to establish His covenant of friendship with Abraham’s seed in the line of continued generations. Romans 9 reveals that the “seed” of Abraham is the seed of the promise, that is, the elect seed. Galatians 3 further explains that the “seed” is Christ. God established His eternal covenant with Christ, and with all those who are in Christ. Because of the elect seed among the children of believers, God commands believers to put upon them the sign of the covenant—baptism.
In the positive part of the third section, the Declaration discusses the confessional statement on how God deals with man.
Historically, the charge has often been leveled against the Reformed faith that the teaching of sovereign, particular grace implies that God treats man as a block of wood. This is the charge of the Arminian, who will leave some activity for man to accomplish in order for salvation to be realized. In the controversy that resulted in the split of the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1953, it was alleged that the unconditional covenant left nothing for man to do, and thus he was handled by God as a block of wood.
To be sure, the old charge was slightly disguised. It took the form of an insistence that we must maintain man’s responsibility. Supposedly, only a conditional covenant in which God promised salvation to every baptized child on the condition of faith, only that conception of the covenant leaves room for man’s responsibility.
The Protestant Reformed Churches in no way deny man’s responsibility, if responsibility is defined as natural man’s obligation to obey (respond to) God’s command. The PRC did (and still do) reject responsibility defined as natural man’s ability to obey (respond to) God’s promise. The latter refers to man’s supposed ability to fulfill a condition unto salvation. That is rejected.
Let the Declaration speak for itself:
The sure promise of God which He realizes in us as rational and moral creatures not only makes it impossible that we should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness but also confronts us with the obligation of love, to walk in a new and holy life, and constantly to watch unto prayer.
What a comforting truth—God realizes His sure promise in us! No, not as a block of wood. The Declaration quotes copiously from the confessions, including this from Canons III, IV, 16: “this grace of regeneration does not treat men as senseless stocks and blocks, nor takes away their will and its properties, neither does violence thereto.”
An additional aspect of “man’s responsibility” involves the question of preaching—specifically, to whom is the preaching addressed. The Protestant Reformed Churches are falsely branded as hyper-Calvinists. A hyper-Calvinist maintains that God in the preaching addresses only the elect, and the preaching commands only the elect to repent and believe.
The Declaration repudiates that notion. The Protestant Reformed Churches have officially adopted the following: “That the preaching comes to all; and that God seriously commands to faith and repentance; and that to all those who come and believe He promises life and peace.” Anyone familiar with the Reformed confessions will recognize the confessional language. If you do not recognize it, consult the Declaration of Principles and read the confessions cited.
Look at this statement of the Declaration carefully. It insists that the preaching commands all who hear it to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Elect or reprobate, none are excluded. But notice, also, that the promise isnot for all who hear. The promise is not assigned to every baptized child or to every hearer of the gospel. Rather, “life and peace” are promised to all who “come,” that is, those who “believe.”
In the final section, the Declaration of Principles very briefly addresses a matter of church government. It reads: “Besides, the Protestant Reformed Churches: Believe and maintain the autonomy of the local church. Only the consistory has authority over the local congregation.”
This briefest of points underwent the most radical change before final adoption. As it read originally, it condemned the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) for several hierarchical actions—for imposing certain doctrinal decisions on the churches synodically; for making these decisions binding upon the churches before protest could be made; and for deposing many local officebearers. All this was in reference to a specific case in another denomination. Although it might have been helpful in the work among the Dutch immigrants from the Liberated, it would have dated the document, and reduced its value for today. It was removed, and we have the much reduced affirmation, together with support from the Belgic Confession, the Church Order, and the Form for the Installation of Elders and Deacons.
On this score, the Protestant Reformed Churches and the Liberated Churches were agreed. Both denominations opposed hierarchy. The local congregation is the church of Jesus Christ. The federation is not “the church.” Christ is in the local congregation and gives His authority to the officebearers there. For this reason, the Protestant Reformed Churches are insistent that a denomination ought not be called a Church, but Churches.
It is worth noting that the Protestant Reformed Churches, while emphasizing the autonomy of the local congregation, do not despise the denomination or minimize its importance. The oneness of the church demands that the local congregation seek out other congregations in order to federate on the basis of the truth. Independentism is not the Reformed way. And the authority of Christ is exercised in the broader assemblies, so that decisions made there are binding throughout. However, the authority of Christ in the broader assemblies is delegated. Its source is in the local congregation.
The next (and final) article will discuss the proper place and authority of the Declaration of Principles in the Protestant Reformed Churches.