Thus, finally, we also understand the fact that the apostles repeatedly address the congregations as the church of Christ. A congregation may appear to be never so bad, but the Apostle Paul addresses it as the church of Christ, as beloved in the Lord, as brethren in Him. That congregation may be divided by party-strife; it may be guilty of drunkenness and adultery; it may even deny or doubt the truth of the resurrection of the dead; it continues to be the church of Christ to which the apostle writes. It may even be necessary at the end of his epistle for the apostle to pen the dreadful words, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.” Yet he writes to that congregation as the one organism of the body of Christ. Thus we can also understand the letters which the Lord Himself addresses to the seven churches of Asia Minor through the Apostle John. Those congregations are praised and are reproved; they are comforted and encouraged with various promises, but also threatened with various punishments and judgments; but it is always one and the same congregation, and as such it is repeatedly addressed. Even in the case of the very congregation which is threatened by the Lord that He will spew her out of His mouth, He nevertheless stands at the door, and knocks, so that they may hear His voice and He may sup with them. One congregation, with the same name, the same labor bestowed, the same covenant, the same calling of God in the world; but in that one congregation always and again the elect kernel, which can never go lost, in the reprobate shell.
If we have understood this truth somewhat, then what otherwise remains a riddle to us in Holy Scripture or with which we would tend to go in an Arminian or Pelagian direction will also be much clearer to us.
Thus, in recent times, appeal has been made once again to Psalm 81 in defense of a general grace of God in the preaching of the gospel. Alas, in recent times in the Christian Reformed Churches appeal is made more and more to texts which also the old Remonstrants quoted in order to prove their Christus pro omnibus, (Christ for all) their doctrine of general grace. This lies, indeed, in the nature of the case. In order to be able to maintain a theory of Common Grace, they have declared that the preaching of the gospel is grace for all who hear it. It is but human that when this proposition is contested by us, they exert themselves to the utmost in order nevertheless to find proof for it in Scripture. And thus it comes about that they appeal to Psalm 81. After all, it is clear—thus they reason—that God meant it so well, that He indeed intended to be gracious, to the very people whom He has given over to their own hearts’ lust. He laments about it. He cries out, “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!” Don’t you see—thus they cry almost triumphantly—that God was well-meaning toward Israel, toward reprobate and ungodly Israel, and that therefore there is a well-meant offer of grace to all? And if then you point out that in this way they make God’s Word speak Arminian language, then they quickly add that this is the one line of God’s Word, while the other is that of sovereign election and sovereign grace. And if then you insist that those two completely exclude one another, that God cannot well-meaningly offer what He never intends to bestow, then they boldly try to get away with the argument silencer that this is a mystery and that we must not even want to understand those things. But this is playing with Scripture and with the Reformed truth. In this way one is Reformed according to a dead confession, but in actual fact a thoroughbred Arminian. In this fashion we may as well abandon every attempt to understand Scripture. Following this course, we can make Scripture say anything whatsoever, under the pious motto that “the hidden things are for the Lord our God.”
But we surely may not deal thus with Scripture. We have indeed the calling to contemplate and study the Word of our God until we understand it. And although we gladly concede that there are mysteries, things which for our finite understanding are never to be fathomed, because our God is unfathomable, yet we maintain that in Scripture we have a revelation of God which is adapted to our thinking and our understanding, and which we indeed can understand. We maintain that this Scripture does not teach and cannot teach that black is also white, that God will not bestow but also will bestow grace on the same persons, that He offers what He does not will to bestow. Scripture is not both Reformed and Arminian.
And thus it is also with Psalm 81. If only we keep in mind the organic unity of the people of God in the midst of the world, then every problem with this passage disappears. Then you can compare God’s people on earth with the individual believer. He is one person, a child of God, called by God’s name, baptized in His name. But there is also still in him the operation of sin; he still carries about with him the body of this death. If now he acts in harmony with that old nature and walks for a time in the paths of sin, and the Lord chastises him then, leads him in ways of adversity and suffering, then it appears as though God is angry with him, and it appears as though God rejects His own elect child. And this is true, too, if only it be properly understood. For also then the Lord does not reject His elect child, but gives him over as he exists historically, in order to save that child. Thus it is also with Israel in the old Dispensation. That people is one. It has one name. It is called “My people.” Thus the Lord also addresses that people: “Hear, O my people, and I will testify unto thee,” (vs. 8). To that people He said: “There shall no strange god be in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god. I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it,” (vss. 9, 10). But that one people consisted of an elect kernel and a reprobate shell. Besides, the sinful nature of that reprobate shell penetrated even into the elect kernel: for also the spiritual children of the promise were not perfect. This is the reason why that people as a unity could sometimes apostatize as it did, and could make its ways more abominable than the ways of the heathen. And if then that people revealed itself under the domination of that wicked shell, then the Lord said of that people: “But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me.” And then the Lord gave that people over, according to its wicked and reprobate shell, unto the lusts of their own hearts. But that never changed the fact that hidden in that people was always the real people of the promise, the elect kernel toward which the heart of Israel’s God went out in love. And if then the enemies subjugated that people, and Israel was given over into captivity, then God lamented over His people: “Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and that Israel had walked in my ways!” And not only did the Lord lament thus, but thus it also came about again: for the remnant according to the election of grace was always preserved. This presentation is surely in harmony with Scripture in general; it is in accord with Israel’s history; and it is free from all Arminianism.
Thus, to mention but one more passage, what God says to Isaiah at the time of his calling to be a prophet in Israel also becomes clear. In connection with this we read in Isaiah 6:9-13: “And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate, And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land. But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.”
Those who want to see in the preaching of the gospel a well-meant offer of grace to all who hear certainly do not know what to do with this passage of Scripture, no more than with the similar word of the Savior which is put still more sharply in Mark 4:8-12. If they will be honest, they will have to admit that they do not hold to the line of Scripture which is here presented, but reject it altogether. Notice that the subject here is precisely the preaching of Isaiah, his calling as prophet. And he is told from the outset that he must serve as prophet in order to make the heart of this people fat, and to make their ears heavy, and to shut their eyes, lest they convert and be healed. And when the prophet, almost afraid of such a calling, asks, “How long must this continue, Lord?” he receives the answer that this must continue until all is destroyed. Only he has the promise of a remnant, a remnant which in turn shall also be eaten away, but of which the holy seed shall be the substance. In other words, the real object here is that remnant and that holy seed. But precisely for the sake of the salvation of that holy seed the preaching of Isaiah must serve for the blinding and hardening of the reprobate shell. If now you keep in mind the organic idea, then you will understand this very well. There come times in Israel’s history when the ungodly segment of the nation gets the power and has the upper hand; times when it becomes well-nigh impossible for the elect kernel to exist in the midst of that reprobate shell. In such times judgment must come upon Israel: Israel must be eaten away, precisely in order to save it from the domination of the ungodly. However, if this is to happen, if a portion of that reprobate shell is to fall away, then it must first become ripe for judgment. And Isaiah’s preaching must serve exactly to accomplish that ripeness of the reprobate shell. Then presently the tenth part shall be preserved, and the remnant, of which the holy seed shall be the substance.
With this organic conception of God’s covenant people in the line of generations we are in a strong position, we have a Scriptural-Reformed point of view. Then we stand strong over against the Baptist position, which exactly does not see and know that organic idea, and therefore also holds that baptism may only be administered to persons who are themselves able to confess that they belong to Christ. Then we also stand strong over against Arminianism, also over against that form of Arminianism which wants to view the preaching to the congregation as a well-meant offer of grace. Instead of this, the matter stands thus, that labor is bestowed upon the entire congregation, that to the entire congregation Christ is proclaimed, and the promises of God in Him, that the entire congregation is exhorted to walk in the ways of the Lord and as friends of God in the midst of the world, but that all this is never grace, cannot be grace, and cannot be intended as grace by the Lord, except for the elect kernel, after which the entire congregation is named, while the other branches are cut off. Also in the congregation the preaching is a savor of life unto life, but also a savor of death unto death.
With this conception we stand strong, too, over against those who want to teach a presupposed regeneration of all the children of the covenant. For that idea we exactly do not teach. Nor can such a presupposition ever be maintained in the light of Scripture and in the light of reality. No, we understand that there is also carnal seed which nevertheless comes under the very same labor as is bestowed upon the entire congregation, and that, too, according to the will of God. What God’s purpose is with this carnal seed in the church, and what influence is exercised upon that carnal seed because of their affinity with the congregation, this we shall see later. And thus it will also be clear that it is exactly not our view that all in the visible church, head for head, are elect, and that there is also room in the preaching to the congregation, according to our conviction, for the proclamation of an everlasting woe for those who will not walk according to the rule of God’s covenant.
THE REPROBATE IN THE SPHERE OF THE COVENANT
By this time it will surely be plain that we exactly do not believe that the entire actually existing and visible church in the midst of the world is elect, as we have sometimes very wrongfully been accused of teaching. Neither do we believe that this may be presupposed with respect to the visible church on earth, that is, believers and their seed, and that only on the basis of such a presupposition can holy baptism be administered to infants, and that only on the basis of the same presupposition can we subscribe to the language of our” Baptism Form and make it our own. No, but we believe that Scripture instructs us very clearly—and that therefore also we may never present matters differently than Scripture instructs us—that among God’s covenant people as they, according to His will, exist here on earth not all is Israel that is called Israel. We believe that essentially the covenant of grace pertains to the elect alone, whom God regenerates in time and on whom He bestows faith and conversion, according to His eternal good pleasure. All the elect and only the elect are saved. And they receive that salvation not out of works, but out of grace, in order that no one may boast. No one regenerates himself, and no one has faith of and by himself. No one converts himself; no one can convert himself or even will to be converted. The Lord God Himself, through His Word and Spirit, and in His own time, makes all His elect people partakers of the benefits of His covenant and forms His people in order that they should show forth His praise.
Strictly speaking, therefore, no one can maintain that anyone who has been reprobated by God can really belong to the covenant of grace. God’s covenant is the living and eternal relation of friendship between Him and His elect people in Christ Jesus. This must necessarily be maintained because otherwise we simply find ourselves again in Arminian waters and make everything dependent upon%-the free will of man. But he who would deduce from this that we believe or even presuppose that the church on earth, believers and their seed as we know them and can recognize them up to a certain point, are also all elect would be seriously mistaken. No, but this people of the covenant reveals itself historically as intertwined with and connected with an evil and reprobate shell, carnal Israel. Indeed, that entire people, according to the will of God, is addressed and treated as God’s people. As the covenant people they are baptized, admonished, comforted, stirred up to repentance, instructed in the way of the covenant. But in all this we may never lose sight of the fact that, positively speaking, the purpose is the salvation of the elect kernel, and that not all who are born in and from the church on earth are saved.
This, according to our conviction, is the Scriptural presentation and also the presentation of our fathers in the Baptism Form, as we have demonstrated in detail.
There remain, however, a few questions in connection with this view of God’s covenant in the world.
In the first place, there is this question: what is the significance of God’s covenant for the ungodly and reprobate who historically are born in that covenant and who temporarily, or even all their lifetime, live under that covenant?
We have intentionally formulated the question thus. For to speak only of “the unconverted” would create confusion. After all, there may also be unconverted elect among believers and their seed. We believe, indeed, that this is not according to the rule of God’s covenant. We prefer to believe that the Lord God as a rule regenerates the elect seed of the church in childhood and brings them to repentance and faith gradually. It is also by far the most wonderful when a child of the covenant is endowed with the new life in his earliest childhood and then under the influence of instruction and preaching gradually grows up in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. That this is the rule is also the teaching of experience. For by far the majority of the children of the covenant are brought to faith and repentance in that gradual way. But the Lord God is free and sovereign in His dealings. Though that gradual way is the usual one in which He endows His elect covenant children with His grace, it is not necessarily the only way in which He works. There are those also who first depart from the way of the covenant and who only later come to repentance. There are even those who only in their old age begin to bear the fruits of faith and conversion. And to accept the possibility that also those who first come to conversion and to the consciousness of faith when they are seventy or eighty years old were nevertheless already regenerated in their youth creates a separation between regeneration and conversion which, in our opinion, does not exist. We may therefore surely assume that there are among believers and their seed also those who are unconverted but who are nevertheless elect. However, we do not have in mind at present these unconverted elect, who certainly will come to conversion. No, we refer to the unconverted who never come to conversion because God does not intend to lead them to conversion. We have in mind the reprobate in God’s covenant on earth.
You must not say that this is an idle question because we can never with certainty point out whether anyone is a reprobate. This does not even touch upon the question with which we are now confronted. For although we do not know who are reprobate, we know with certainty that there are also such reprobate ungodly brought by God into the sphere of His covenant. All Scripture teaches this. The entire history of the church teaches this. Experience teaches this again and again. It is important, therefore, that we place ourselves before the question what we are to think of such reprobate in the sphere of the covenant. They come under God’s covenant according to His will and good pleasure. The question arises therefore: what is God’s purpose with this? If nevertheless only the elect are saved, why are those reprobate temporarily in God’s covenant on earth? There is also no doubt about it that in a certain sense they are children of the kingdom: for Scripture speaks of such children of the kingdom who are cast out. They are not to be placed on a par with the heathen, with those who never come into contact with God’s covenant. The question arises, therefore: what is their relation to Christ and to God’s covenant? Wherein are they distinguished from the children of the heathen? What is and will be their spiritual condition? What do they receive by reason of their relation to the people and the fellowship of the covenant?
To begin with the last question, it may be observed that there certainly can be no doubt whether there is indeed a certain influence of God’s covenant upon the children of the kingdom who are cast out. All Scripture reveals this very clearly. Already in the figure of the vine and the branches, used by the Lord Himself (John 15) there is the idea that also the branches which are cast out, which are cut out, nevertheless stood in a certain connection with the vine and also drew their life-sap out of that vine. Plainly, the distinction between the branches which abide in the vine and those other branches which are cut out is not the same as the difference between living and dead branches. The branches which are cut out are not dead branches, which stand in no living connection with the vine whatsoever. No, the distinction is between branches which do bear fruit and other branches which do notbear fruit. Also those non-fruit bearing branches are in the vine. The Lord Jesus states it as follows: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit . . .” There is, therefore, a certain being in God’s covenant in Christ without bringing forth fruits of faith and conversion. There is indeed an influence of the vine upon those unfruitful branches. So also there is an influence of God’s covenant upon those who are in it without ever coming to repentance. This is also clear from the previously cited figure of the vineyard, described by Isaiah. Everything that could be done has been to that vineyard. But under all that labor wild grapes are brought forth.
(to be continued)