Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
… if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
The controversy of 1953 centered in many ways in the word “conditions” and the propriety of its use regarding the covenant of grace. This is to be regretted, for that question touched only obliquely on the heart of what this whole matter was actually about, as some tried repeatedly to point out. But the debate over “conditions” would not be put down. It was simply too attractive a matter for debate, one on which nearly everyone could have an opinion, no matter how simplistic it might be (particularly, perhaps, because on its acceptance there seemed to hinge the possibility of a major growth in our small and struggling denomination). But in the end this focus probably did more to confuse the real issue than to clarify it. Still, it was there; and if we are to understand the dimensions of what took place, we must come to terms with the implications of this matter as well.
That the word “condition” cannot be rejected outright follows from the fact that what are grammatically called “conditional sentences” appear so often in the Bible, in the original Hebrew and Greek as well as in the varied translations taken from them. In fact, the conjunction “if,” the most distinguishing mark of a conditional sentence, itself appears in Scripture well over a thousand times, to say nothing of the innumerable instances in which it is simply understood, or in which another word of similar import is used. It is a construction that cannot be ignored (although we should note that its import is not always the same).
Conditional sentences as such constitute a basic linguistic tool of logical thought and speech, pointing out as they do the existence or nonexistence, probability or possibility, of basic relationships between various realities in life and categories of thought. Compound in structure, conditional sentences are made up of two distinctly different clauses. The one, grammatically called the protasis, is introduced, either by actual statement or implication, with the conjunction “if,” and indicates something that may or may not exist. The other clause, called the apodasis, is introduced, again through actual statement or by implication, with the conjunction “then,” and designates a category of reality or thought that does or does not exist in relation to that indicated by the protasis. If the one entity does or does not exist, then the other in turn will or will not, may or may not, exist in relation to it as well. And so in the end these sentences form bridges of identification, and constitute some of the most basic building blocks of all logical thought. In fact, the correct recognition of the existence or nonexistence of these relationships is essential to the understanding of the revelation God has given us concerning the cosmos, that unified interrelated whole which constitutes the creation in which we have a place (particularly so when it came to the matter of God’s law).
That this is so, we see if we go back to the first issuance of the moral imperative underlying the law,Genesis 2:17: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Although neither “if” nor “then” appears as such in this statement, these words are clearly understood. God was telling Adam that, if he would eat of the tree of knowledge, then that life as he knew it, one of an intimate fellowship of love with God, would cease. Adam would die, morally and, in the end, physically as well. The command was, of course, with reference to a particular situation in which Adam personally was involved. He alone was confronted with that particular tree; but the command reflected the universal identity between obedience to God and the experience of life. Without the one the other could not exist. Adam at that point, however, was in a state of perfection, and the negative form of this command, delineating the possibility of sin, did nothing to influence Adam toward it. Rather, that tree, and the legal prohibition concerning it, only brought to his awareness the consciousness that good was what he loved, and sin that which he hated. While eating of the fruit of the trees of the garden, he was careful to avoid that one which was forbidden. It was only when Satan the deceiver came that this changed. Satan set forth the false proposition that by freeing himself from the word of God and determining for himself what is good and what is evil, Adam would make himself the god of his own life, and the evil forecast by God would never come to pass. With this blatant untruth, Satan became the instigator and author of sin; and Adam with all his descendants died, just as God had warned. For the first time since his creation, Adam found himself with a troubled conscience and thoughts that he felt compelled to hide, thoughts he cared to share neither with Eve nor with God.
All of this comes out even more clearly when we move on to the next presentation of the principle of divine law, again in conditional form. It was after Adam’s son Cain had murdered his brother, Abel. Both he and God knew what he had done; in fact, God assured Cain that Abel’s blood was crying to Him from the ground. And then, once again, God set forth His moral imperative. As He put it, Genesis 4:7, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” Here, in two parallel constructions, Cain was being reminded of the legal relationship which exists between the works of men and the law of God.
To begin with, God put it positively, “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?” Here, doing well, the protasis of this condition, designates obedience to God’s word, which relates to what the apodasis designated as being accepted of God, a synonym for being spiritually alive, or having an organic relation of fellowship with God. It was that which his father Adam had known before the fall, and what his brother Abel had come to by means of his “more excellent sacrifice” (Heb. 11:4). And, in turn, it was Cain’s rejection of this that had left him angry and defensive, driving him to the murder of his righteous brother.
So God went on, expressing the same principle over again in a negative form: “and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” God was driving home to Cain’s consciousness what was going on in his heart. He had not done well, as he knew; and so sin had pounced upon him, offering to be at his service in pursuing the carnal dreams and desires of his sinful heart, while leading him on the road to death. It was a death that would not come simply by means of a quick execution, but rather which would continue to speak to his heart, as for the rest of his days he would wander restlessly, seeking a place in this world which he loved but would never really possess. The law of God would not allow him to forget, but neither would it ever change his heart. As the Scriptures make plain throughout, the law reminds of sin, but never saves.
This comes out again and again as we make our way through the record of Scripture. The same principle given to Adam and to Cain is repeated over and over again, as in Leviticus 18:5: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord,” which was later taken up by Paul and stated in this way, Galatians 3:12: “And the law is … the man that doeth them shall live in them.” It is a spiritual principle that is always true. Those who do the works of the law of God fully and completely have life in them. Life and the works of the law go together; and where one of these is lacking, the other will not be either, which the conditional constructions of the law bring out rhetorically in very emphatic and inescapable terms. The problem is that pointing this out is never enough to change it. Sin is not a simple matter of ignorance, so that, if a man knows better, he will change. Sin is a deep-set corruption of the heart; and pointing out the sinfulness of man’s works only arouses his sense of denial and rebellion, increasing his sin. Through the fall of Adam, the conditions of the law had become conditions of unreality. While it is always true that if a man keeps the law he will live, the fact is that no mere man ever does. Thus all are now by nature morally dead, as Paul said, Romans 3:20, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” The conditions of the law lay out the works of man, next to the perfect principles according to which the world was made, and thereby bring out how far each falls short of finding life in these works. The conditions of the law never saved a soul.
And it was this that made it so surprising that Dr. Schilder, a scholar committed to the principles of predestination and the sovereignty of God in all things, not only identified himself with a conditional view of the covenant, but, even more, did so in the forensic terms of the law. It is to be recognized, of course, that he expressed many reservations as he sought to preserve the orthodoxy of his teachings; and that can be appreciated. He was insistent that, while there are conditions in the covenant, these can only be met by the grace of God; and, thus, those who meet these conditions have no claim to merit for what they have done. Even the idea that conditions are prerequisites to salvation (the view Hubert DeWolf took up as his cause) he emphatically rejected as Arminian and heretical. Neither was Schilder ever one to compromise the full reality of double predestination, as some of his followers seem to have done. But, through this all, he was very determined to view the covenant as forensic, a relationship of law, as he once said in a speech he made entitled “The Main Point of the Covenant”:
if God from His side makes a covenant relationship between Himself on the one side and man on the other side, then it is possible. Then there is a legal relationship, then there is blessing or (covenantal) curse, then He lures with promise or threatens with (covenantal) punishment.
And so he asked rhetorically in his pamphlet Extra-Biblical Binding: a New Danger: “The big question that now appears is: What happens at baptism? Do I receive a dogmatic statement: God brings all the elect to salvation? Or am I addressed with a legal statement, in which I am personally and individually involved?” There was no question that he intended the latter to be so. For Schilder the conditions of the covenant were conditions of law, those which point to the works which God demands as something that must be done by man in order to live. And that was the problem with his conditions — they presented that which is promised by God as an uncertain thing dependent upon the works of men. He essentially was moving the covenant out of the sphere of grace, as Paul said, Romans 11:6, “if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
Hoeksema could not accept that. He, after all, had been raised in the tradition of Herman Bavinck, who had written of this very thing in his Magnalia Dei (entitled Our Reasonable Faith in its English translation):
Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man has forfeited and which he can never again achieve in his own strength. But if this salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life. In this, grace and works stand at opposite poles from each other and are mutually exclusive. If salvation is by grace it is no longer by works, or otherwise grace is no longer grace. And if it is by works, it is not by grace, or otherwise works are not works (
These were the kinds of things that Hoeksema wanted so very much to discuss with his friend. From the start he had recognized that the things Schilder and he were saying about the covenant were not compatible, and would have to be discussed together at length before the Protestant Reformed and Liberated Churches could ever come together ecclesiastically. But at heart he always believed that, if such discussion could be carried on in a spirit of mutual respect for each other, and with a willingness to bow before the Word of God, these differences could be worked through. But for him, it was never to be.