Believers and Their Seed, Covenant Children Who Die In Infancy (Continuation of Chapter XI)

(Note: The following is a continuation of Chapter I of “Believers And Their Seed.” Through a serious printer’s error in the last issue, and contrary to your editor’s instructions, the last installment was broken off not only in the middle of a paragraph, but in the middle of a sentence. We hope our readers will understand it is not the Standard Bearer’s policy to hold you in suspense for a half month. For your convenience, the present installment begins at the beginning of the paragraph which was mutilated in the previous issue. HCH)

“With regard to the question what this participation in the essence of the covenant means, what benefit is the portion of the covenant-member (bondeling), it must be noted that we must distinguish a two-fold application of salvation. Both are mentioned in the prayer of thanksgiving in the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, as follows: ‘. . .that Thou hast of thy infinite mercy, given us thine only begotten Son, for a Mediator and a sacrifice for our sins, and to be our meat and drink unto life eternal, and that Thou givest us lively faith, whereby we are made partakers of such great benefits.’ Hence, the ‘becoming partakers’ (or, ‘being made partakers’) takes place through faith and is something different than the being ‘given.’ (Translator’s note: In the Dutch version of the above quotation from the Form for the Lord’s Supper, the verbs are respectively geschonken hebben and deelachtig worden.) Similarly in Question 74 (of the Heidelberg Catechism) the two elements of the promise mentioned are ‘the redemption from sins by the blood of Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit, the Author of faith.’ The application of salvation must first of all be that of an objective gift (Dutch: eene objectieve schenking), whereby there is given us a divine right to salvation; and this takes place in and through the covenant. And, secondly, there must be a subjective being made partaker (Dutch: een subjectieve deelachtigmaking), and this takes place through faith, or rather through the Holy Spirit, Who works faith. The first every covenant-member receives, as covenant-member in the full sense. Baptism is a divine seal, ‘an undoubted testimony,’ of this to all who are baptized. What this includes is so pointedly set forth in the Baptism Form when it explains what it means to be ‘baptized in the name of the Father and in the name of the Son. As to the second element, the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit, or the subjective being made partaker, the situation is the same for the covenant-member, and yet it is not the same. It is the same, for even as in the covenant the forgiveness of sins and everlasting righteousness and salvation are bestowed upon him by God, that is, the right to these is given, thus also there is given to him the right to the subjective application by the Holy Spirit (Catechism, Question 74). And yet the situation is also not the same; for to give the right to forgiveness of sins and everlasting righteousness and salvation is equivalent to bestowing those benefits of salvation themselves. It is to put us in possession of them. But to give the right to the subjective application by the Holy Spirit is not yet to give us that subjective application itself. This is well put in the Baptism Form when it tells us that in baptism the Father witnesses and seals unto us that ‘he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs,’ and the Son seals unto us that ‘he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins,’ but the Holy Spirit assures us that he ‘will sanctify’ (not: sanctifies) us to be members of Christ, ‘applying unto us that which we have in Christ.’ To have a part in the essence of the covenant, therefore, implies for the covenant-member the being put in possession of the benefits of salvation, even as the application thereof takes place in and through the covenant, and to have received a right to the subjective being made a partaker of salvation as this occurs through the Holy Spirit. 

“In such a conception of the essence of the covenant there is no need whatsoever of the distinction between a conditional or external covenant, to which the seed of believers in general would belong, and an absolute or internal covenant, in which only the elect would have a part. This distinction is the consequence of a bilateral covenant conception, which finds the essence of the covenant to consist in the saving possession of the benefits of salvation. But neither the Word of God nor our confessions justify this distinction. There is a difference among covenant-members, but this difference is not to be dragged into the covenant itself. Some receive the saving application by the Holy Spirit; others do not. The former are in the vine as fruitful branches, the latter as unfruitful branches. But though there be a difference among the branches, the vine is one; and though there be a difference among the covenant-members, the covenant is one.” Such is the conception of Professor W. Heyns. We intentionally quoted him at length, in order, on the one hand, not to make the professor say things which he did not actually say, and, on the other hand, because we are, here dealing with a covenant conception which has found widespread acceptance and which, in our opinion, should be rooted out completely., We hope to give our reasons for ‘this in the following chapter. At present, let it be clear what the professor’s view is. He views God’s covenant purely soteriologically. That is, for him the salvation of the covenant-members is the one and only thing in God’s covenant. The covenant is really a promise of salvation. The essence of the covenant is, however, not salvation itself, but the promise of God that He will bestow that salvation. In this manner, the professor tries to steer clear of the distinction between being outwardly and inwardly in God’s covenant as it becomes manifest historically in the world. The promise is the essence. Moreover, that promise, according to Professor Heyns, is bestowed upon all without distinction who are born as seed of the covenant, born of believing parents. God very really ‘declares in His covenant that He will save all the children of the covenant, that is, all the seed of the covenant in the natural sense. No, still more. Not only does, the Professor distinguish, but he also separates between the work of the Father, Who establishes His everlasting covenant, and the work of the Son, Who washes us in His blood, on the one hand, and the work of the Holy Spirit, who must make us partakers of salvation, on the other hand. The covenant can be established with us by the Father; we can be incorporated into Christ and washed by His blood; but that does not yet mean that we also actually become partakers of the benefits of the covenant. This last depends, according to Prof. Heyns, on something else; and that something else is that the covenant-member is obligated also to accept in faith those benefits which were promised to him by oath in the covenant. 

How the professor can teach all this as a Reformed man is indeed a riddle to us. But by way of explanation it should be added that the professor also ascribes to all covenant-members a certain subjective grace. They are not to be compared to the children of the world. They are not stone deaf and totally blind. No, they all, head for head, and soul for soul, whether they be elect and saved or whether they be non-elect and not saved, nevertheless receive something. They receive a certain life, a life which is not indeed the life of regeneration, but nevertheless life. Through this life they are put in a position to take possession of and to accept the offered promise, the essence of the covenant, or to reject it. Thus, they have a divine right to salvation. They also have a divine promise, which is sure and steadfast, that God will make them partakers of the salvation in Christ. And they also receive in the subjective sense of the word a certain grace, a certain power, whereby they are able, too, to accept those benefits and to beseech the Holy Spirit for His grace, (cf. pp. 70-75, “Essays on the Covenant of Grace”). 

In the previous chapter we allowed Prof. W. Heyns to speak at length concerning his presentation of the covenant of grace with respect to believers and their seed. We did that because his presentation is indeed representative of a certain tendency in this respect; he does not stand alone. We did it, too, because Prof. Heyns’s presentation has for years been imbibed by many who now serve as ministers in the Christian Reformed denomination. If we keep this in mind, it is no longer surprising that the doctrine of a general offer of grace on God’s part in the preaching of the gospel to all who hear that gospel not only could find a reception but also could be so readily officially adopted by the Synod of 1924 as the only pure Reformed presentation. We also wrote, after having quoted Prof. Heyns at length, that it is our conviction that this view must be completely rooted out; and we promised to adduce our reasons for this conviction. 

And then we can immediately state that our chief reason is that the presentation of Prof. Heyns is nothing else than the old Pelagian error applied to the doctrine of the covenant. 

We shall make this clear. 

The professor asserts that the essence of the covenant is the promise that God will be our God and the God of our seed. Now in itself this would not be objectionable. At least there could be no serious objection to this, provided the professor understood this in a good sense and did not very definitely sail in the direction of Arminianism with his entire presentation. It would, of course, be possible with such a definition of God’s covenant to maintain the pure and Scriptural presentation of the promise of God; and then one might still remain pure in his further reasoning. For indeed God’s promises are Yea and Amen. He is the unchangeable One, the faithful God, Jehovah, the I AM THAT I AM. When God promises something, then it is absolutely certain that He will bestow that which He promised. There is no difference in certainty between the promise and the fulfillment, between the objective bequest and the subjective application. All that God promises He also most certainly performs, and to whomsoever He promises anything He will also certainly give it. Taken in that sense, there would be no danger in the presentation that the essence of the covenant consists of the promise, “I am your God and the God of your seed.” But understood thus, there could also be no question about it that this promise is not for all who are born in the sphere of the historical manifestation of God’s covenant. God does not promise to everyone, head for head, everyone who belongs to the seed of the covenant in the historical, visible, external sense of the word, that God will be his God and will save him. He does not in the objective sense of the word bequeath (to use Prof. Heyns’s language) upon all, head for head, His salvation and the benefits of the covenant. And taken thus, the expression by which Prof. Heyns describes the covenant means, then, nothing else than that in the covenant God is the God of His people, and that they are His people. This is a thoroughly Scriptural idea. 

Professor Heyns, however, does not want this. For in this way a distinction is made between seed and seed, and the essence of the covenant does not after all concern all the children who are born in the sphere of the covenant. Following this line, one would be compelled to speak again of an external and an internal covenant, of its visible-historical side and its spiritual-invisible side. This is exactly what Prof. Heyns wants to avoid. He wishes to describe the essence of the covenant in such a way that it includes all the children of believers, that this essence of the covenant indeed concerns all who are born in the sphere of the covenant in the historical sense. Hence, he also does not conceive of the promise of God as absolute and unconditional, but as relative and conditional. The essence of the covenant is the promise in the sense of a conditional offer. On His part, God promises, that is, He offers, to all who are born in the covenant, that He will be their God, on condition that they also now accept that promise of God and consent to the covenant. That conditional relationship in which God places Himself to the seed of the covenant, the realization of which depends on the consent and acceptance of the covenant-member,—that is for Prof. Heyns the essence of the covenant. Thus what we really have is a general offer, in the form of a pact, within the confines of the covenant in the historical sense. This, then, is also the so-called general covenant-grace. 

In addition to the preceding, Prof. Heyns also makes a subjective distinction between the seed of the covenant and the children of the world. The seed of the covenant all receive a certain life from God. This life is not indeed the life of regeneration; nevertheless by virtue of this life they are not stone deaf nor completely blind. By this life they are all in a position to determine their own relation to the covenant promise of God which is bestowed upon them all. On their part, they can either consent to and accept that promise, or they can decline it and reject it. And whether now the covenant of God will also be subjectively fulfilled, and whether anyone will actually receive the benefits of God’s covenant, this depends upon this consent and acceptance by the covenant member. For this reason the professor makes his distinction between the so-called objective bequest of the benefits of the covenant, which comes to all the covenant members, and the subjective application of these benefits, which is only the portion of those who accept the covenant of God. Therefore also the professor makes that strange distinction between the bequest of the covenant by the Father and the Son and the application of it by the Holy Spirit. For the essence of the covenant, in Heyns’s view, lies in God’s binding engagement, sworn with an oath and sealed by the seals of the sacraments, that God on His part will bestow the grace of the covenant. But whether or not anyone will also actually receive this grace, depends upon the use which the covenant member makes of that first life, that first subjective grace, which God bestows upon every member of the covenant, but which is nevertheless not the life of regeneration. 

It will be evident to the reader that this is nothing but Pelagianism applied to the historical sphere of the covenant. After all, it is the doctrine of Pelagius and Arminius that every man possesses the light of nature, and that therein he has received from God a certain grace; that, moreover, God on His part comes with a well-meant offer of grace in the gospel and offers Christ to all; and that it finally depends on this light of nature and on the use which the sinner makes of this light whether or not he will also become a partaker of this offered grace. Everything revolves about the free will of man. What God says and what God does is conditional; and it depends completely upon man whether that which is conditional shall also become reality and certainty, Now Pelagianism simply applies this to all men. But the doctrine of Prof. Heyns is precisely the same, except that he applies it to the narrower sphere of the covenant in its historical sense. 

When the professor then also ventures an attempt to support this view from the confessions and from the various liturgical forms, this attempt, as might be expected, is a total failure. The professor cites the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper and finds these words in the Prayer of Thanksgiving: “. . .that Thou hast of thy infinite mercy, given us thine only begotten Son, for a Mediator and a sacrifice for our sins, and to be our meat and drink unto life eternal, and that thou givest us lively faith, whereby we are made partakers of such great benefits.” Prof. Heyns makes the following remark in this connection: “Thus the being made a partaker takes place through faith and is something else than the bestowal of the gift (of the Mediator).” (Note: In the Dutch version of the Form for the Lord’s Supper there are two different verbs used (geschonken hebt and geeft); our English version renders both by the verb give. Prof. Heyns in the above quotation is making a distinction between the objective sending, or gift, of the Mediator and the subjective being made a partaker of the benefits of salvation. HCH) But we would remark: this is not the issue. There is certainly no one who would deny that we must distinguish between the objective bestowal of Christ and the subjective application of salvation in Him. That is not the question. But the professor teaches that we may and must so distinguish between this objective bequest and subjective application that they can also be separated. Someone can have the right to the possession of the benefits because God has bequeathed them to him, and nevertheless it is possible that he never actually receives those benefits. Such is the presentation of Prof. Heyns. But that is exactly not the presentation of the Prayer of Thanksgiving in the Form for the Lord’s Supper. Plainly, in the Prayer of Thanksgiving the church speaks of both the bequest, or bestowal, of the gift of the Mediator and of the application of salvation. God bestows the gift, and He applies it. The objective and the subjective are in the Form not separated, though they are distinguished. Those upon whom God has bestowed the gift of Christ also become actual partakers of Christ through the grace of God. In the Prayer of Thanksgiving, therefore, the professor finds no support for his view.