Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in Wyoming, MI
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ. Ephesians 4:15
Introduction and approach
Most readers of the Standard Bearer are aware of the recent schism in the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC). Three ministers, Nathan Langerak, Andrew Lanning, and Martin VanderWal, have led the schismatics out of the PRC. They have organized themselves as the Reformed Protestant Churches (RPC). At the time that they left the PRC, these ministers were guilty of public schism. One had been deposed for this sin. Besides the sin of public schism, there is also a critical theological issue involved in the breech between the RPC and the PRC. Since they have left, in their writings in the magazine they founded, Sword and Shield, in the public speeches they have given, and in the sermons they have preached, the leaders of the RPC have developed in this error. Their error is the error of antinomianism. Although it is true that the ministers were never formally charged with antinomianism when they were in the PRC, there were indications already then of antinomian tendences. Since then there has been doctrinal development (declension). In a few articles, I hope to demonstrate this distortion of the gospel of grace that has been embraced and is being aggressively promoted by the RPC. It is also my intention to demonstrate that, contrary to the charge of the RPC, the PRC remain faithful to the gospel of God’s sovereign, particular grace as set forth in Scripture and defended in the Reformed creeds. From their founding nearly one hundred years ago, the PRC by God’s grace have remained faithful to the truth, rejecting error both on the left and on the right. The leaders of the RPC have departed from the old paths and have laid another foundation than that which was laid in 1924 when the PRC were birthed.
Some have been dismissive of the charge of antinomianism against the RPC and its leaders. At the very least they have been skeptical of the validity of the charge or have rejected it altogether. Surely, the RPC are not rejecting the place of the law of God in the life of the Christian, as the term “antinomian” would indicate. “Antinomian” literally describes someone who is “against (anti-) the law.” Surely, the leaders of the RPC are not rejecting altogether the law as the rule of life for the saved Christian.
But what must be borne in mind is that over the years antinomianism has morphed. And not only has it morphed, but over time the error has developed and become more subtle. That is true of the error that is the ditch on the other side of the straight and narrow way into the everlasting kingdom: legalism. Legalism is not only the bald error of the Pharisees who sought by their own good works to merit salvation. That error, too, developed and was refined. From Phariseeism, the error was further developed by the Judaizers, still further by the Pelagians, the Semi-Pelagians, the Arminians, the proponents of the well-meant offer of the gospel, and finally by the teaching of the conditional covenant. Similarly antinomianism has developed over the years. It is not the forthright rejection of the law in the life of the Christian that is the error of the RPC. But it has become, as we will see, a much more refined error, an error that aims to elude the charge of antinomianism.
At the outset, I want to be clear that I am not interested in character assassination. I do not in any way want to assault persons. I am interested in the truth—biblical and confessional truth. In my defense of the truth, I consider it to be my duty to expose error as did our Lord and His apostles. I will strive to speak the truth in love, as is the calling of every Christian according to Ephesians 4:15. It is not enough that we speak the truth; we are called to speak the truth in love. My aim is especially to help our readers in assessing the teaching of the leaders of the RPC. I am also interested in convincing those who have been led astray. I fervently desire the return of those who have left the PRC. I also pray for the repentance of the leaders of the RPC. May God use these articles to these ends.
My approach in these articles will be to contrast legalism with antinomianism—the antinomianism of the RPC—on specific doctrinal issues, after which I will set forth the historic Reformed faith. For easy reference, I will number the errors of the leaders of the RPC. In setting forth the historic Reformed faith, besides appealing to Scripture, I will cite the Reformed confessions, as well as representatives of the Reformed tradition, particularly John Calvin. It is my purpose to demonstrate that the position of the PRC throughout its history is that which has historically been held by the Reformed. The RPC represent departure and novelty within the Reformed camp.
Error #1: Forgiveness apart from repentance
Legalism. It is the teaching of legalism that repentance earns forgiveness. God forgives us because we repent. In some sense, we merit forgiveness on account of our act of repentance. In the medieval Roman Catholic Church, this legalistic view of repentance led to the doctrine and practice of penance. The sins of the faithful were forgiven on the condition that they confessed their sins in the ear of a priest and carried out the prescribed penance. It was the Roman Catholic doctrine of repentance that gave rise to the blasphemy of the church’s selling forgiveness for money. This was the evil practice of indulgences, the sale of which in the vicinity of Wittenberg led to Martin Luther’s nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the chapel door.
Antinomianism. In contrast to the teaching of the legalists, the teaching of the antinomians is that God forgives our sins apart from our repentance. First God forgives our sins, and then we repent. Because God is always first (with which we would not disagree), they argue, forgiveness—a work of God—must precede repentance— regarded as a work of man in the skewed view of the antinomians. This is their remedy to repentance being a condition unto forgiveness.
That forgiveness precedes repentance is the teaching of the RPC and its ministers.
[T]he teaching that in some sense a man’s activity of repenting precedes God’s activity of remitting his sins is so deadly and wretched…. Let them stop talking in the abstract about salvation. Let them stop saying this: “Repentance precedes remission of sins.” (Sword and Shield, February 15, 2022, p. 20.)
Repentance has no bearing whatsoever on man’s remission of sins or his justification. (Sword and Shield, March 15, 2022, p. 27.)
Now also we deny that in a certain sense God causes man to be first so that God may act…we deny that the call of the gospel is repent that you may be forgiven.
We deny that. We deny that emphatically. (Sword and Shield, March 15, 2022, p. 42.)
Before the ministry of reconciliation preached one syllable, God forgave his elect all their sins and did not impute those sins unto them without a single tear of repentance. They were forgiven. (Sword and Shield, March 15, 2022, p. 43.)
A lamb slain before the foundation of the world [Rev. 13:8] means justification before the foundation of the world and therefore that there was forgiveness before repentance and without any repentance at all. Let everyone hear, and let them agree or disagree; let them believe it or not believe it. This is the gospel message of the Reformed Protestant Churches. The sinner has forgiveness without repenting. This is the gospel message of Scripture. This is God-first theology. That is our gospel. (Sword and Shield, March 15, 2022, p. 43.)
In an April 2022 public lecture, one of the leaders of the RPC disparaged and essentially denied the teaching of the Canons of Dordt, V.5. What he finds objectionable is the teaching of the article that by their enormous sins elect children of God can “lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.” The article teaches clearly that forgiveness follows repentance. If it is not “until” we repent that the sense of God’s favor (forgiveness) is restored, then repentance precedes forgiveness. Or, to put it differently, forgiveness follows repentance. This is indisputably the teaching of Canons V.5.
That forgiveness precedes repentance has become a distinctive doctrine of the RPC: “This is the gospel message of the Reformed Protestant Churches.” Though it was not an issue when the leaders of the RPC led their followers out of the PRC, they now identify it as one of the fundamental doctrines that distinguish the RPC from the PRC. It is a doctrine that distinguishes them from the PRC not because this once was the teaching of the PRC in its early history and from which she has recently departed. F or this idea that forgiveness precedes repentance never has been the teaching of the PRC and cannot be demonstrated ever to have been a distinguishing doctrine of the PRC. It certainly was not regarded as a distinctive of the PRC in the minds of those who wrote in opposition to her over the years. Never did any of these opponents identify as a teaching of the PRC to which they took exception that repentance follows forgiveness. No PRC theologian has ever taught that God’s forgiveness of us precedes His work in us to bring us to repentance. Contrary to the contention of the leaders of the RPC, they do not represent a continuation of the PRC, at least not in this peculiar doctrine that forgiveness is a work of God that takes place prior to repentance.
Not only is this teaching not Protestant Reformed, neither is it Reformed in its pedigree. Quite to the contrary, it is unreformed and antinomian. And it is antinomian, at the very least, because it minimizes the importance of repentance, while at the very worst, it denies the need for repentance altogether. Why ought the sinner to repent if his sin is already forgiven? Why ought the church member under discipline repent of the sin on account of which he is going to be excommunicated if his sin is already forgiven by God? Why ought there be any call to repentance in the preaching of the gospel if forgiveness has already been granted by God? Why ought there to be any warning that, if the sinner does not repent, he will perish if God has from eternity forgiven the sinner? Why should the child of God at day’s end humble himself before God and plead for the forgiveness of the sins committed against His most high majesty if he already enjoys the blessing of God’s forgiveness of his sins?
Forgiveness apart from repentance. Our Dutch forebears were fond of warning, beginselen werken door (“principles work through”). Therefore, if sins are forgiven apart from repentance, repentance will ultimately be dispensed with. Since God has not only determined (decreed) that He will forgive our sins, but has actually forgiven them in eternity, what need has the sinner of seeking His forgiveness? Does not the seeking of forgiveness, which is repentance, or, at the very least, the fruit of repentance, reflect doubt that our sins are forgiven?
The Reformed Faith. Eternally God has decreed to forgive our sins. On the cross, the Lord Jesus made satisfaction and atonement as the basis for God’s forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness actually takes place when by faith in Jesus Christ, God declares in our consciousness, “Thy sins are forgiven.”
Over against legalism, on the one hand, and antinomianism, on the other hand, is the teaching of the Reformed faith. With regard to the relation between forgiveness and repentance, the Reformed faith teaches that God forgives sin in the way of repentance. When the child of God repents, God forgives his sin. Forgiveness follows repentance. It is true that God has eternally decreed that He will forgive the sin of the wayward believer, and has also decreed that He will work repentance (sorrow over and confession of sin) in His wayward child. This is the source of forgiveness and repentance. It is also true that Jesus Christ has died in order to establish the legal basis for forgiveness and repentance. In Ephesians 4:32 the apostle teaches that God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us. It is equally true that God the Holy Spirit works repentance over sin in the life of the believer in order that God may forgive him. This is the God-ordained order: repentance followed by forgiveness.
That forgiveness follows repentance is the teaching of Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that God’s forgiveness follows God-worked repentance. This is also, as we will see, the teaching of the Reformed tradition and the Reformed confessions. That divine order is confirmed by the experience of every believer as well.
I Kings 8 contains Solomon’s prayer to God on behalf of Israel at the time of the dedication of the temple. Included in his prayer is his supplication that, “If they sin against thee, (for there is no man that sinneth not,) and thou be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy” (v. 46) and in the land of captivity they “repent, and make supplication unto thee” (v. 47), “Then hear thou their prayer” and “forgive thy people that have sinned against thee” (vv. 49-50). Clearly, God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sin follows their repentance.
Psalm 32 records the experience of David when he fell into his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. In verse 5 we read, “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” God forgave David’s sin only after he repented of and confessed his sin. In the way of repentance, God forgave David’s sin.
In Proverbs 28:13 we read, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” They who confess their sins shall have mercy—God’s mercy, the mercy of forgiveness. They enjoy the mercy of forgiveness who confess and forsake, that is, repent of their sins.
Acts 2 records Peter’s Pentecost sermon. In verse 38 Peter calls those in his audience to repentance: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” They are to “repent… for the remission of sins.” Once more, forgiveness (“the remission of sins”) follows repentance. Repentance is the God-ordained way to forgiveness.
The teaching of the apostle in I John 1:9 is: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” If we confess our sins, and we will as the elect children of God, then God is just to forgive our sins. Since confession of sin is the fruit of repentance over sin, the apostle teaches clearly in I John 1:9 that repentance precedes forgiveness.
In Luke 17:3, Jesus exhorts that “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” Here God’s behavior with respect to us is the model of our calling with respect to each other. If our brother sins against us and repents of that sin, we are called to forgive him. Why are we called to forgive our repentant brother? Because this is God’s way with us: when we repent, He forgives us. Of course He does. He is the One who has worked repentance over sin in us. He has brought us to confess our sin. Since our repentance is the fruit of His work of grace, He will certainly receive us and forgive us.
Standing on the clear testimony of Scripture is the Reformed tradition and the Reformed confessions. We will examine that testimony in our next article.