Rev. Woudenberg is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
Anyone who lived through the Protestant Reformed/Liberated controversy of the late ’40s and early ’50s will remember the debates which took place over the word “conditions.” On and on they went over the question of whether one can properly speak of conditions regarding the covenant of grace. Seldom was there much consideration as to whether these were conditions to enter into the covenant, or within the covenant, or resulting from the covenant; but argue we did, rarely with a great deal of understanding, and at times approaching the banal, but interest and passion were there. So it is not surprising that Schilder in turn addressed himself to that question in his series of articles critiquing the Declaration of Principles. That was the question of the hour.
Striking, and worthy of note, is the fact that Schilder starts his primary treatment of this point in a chapter entitled, “Be Careful with Dictionaries.” It may well have been with good reason, when one considers that what he sets forth in delineating the term hardly meets the requirements of a formal definition, and would actually seem to be a distinct avoidance of what the dictionary has to say. In fact, what he gives is more of a carefully fashioned series of rhetorical questions, set up to allow him to give his own rhetorical response as to what the term in his usage is not to be taken to say. His questions accordingly are:
a. By condition do you mean something which would bind GOD? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password!”
b. By condition do you mean something for which God has to wait before He can go on? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password.”
c. By condition do you mean something we have to fulfill, in order to merit something? Then we say unconditionally: “unconditional is the password!”
d. Do you mean by condition something which God has joined to something else, to make clear to us that the one cannot come without the other and that we cannot be sure of the one, unless we are at the same time assured of the other? Then we say unconditionally: “conditional is the password!”
As far as the Bible is concerned, it contains many of what are called conditional sentences; and, especially in New Testament Greek, their form of construction is carefully designed to identify the logical relationship which does or does not exist between two different hypothetical propositions. Each of these sentences is divided into two parts: the “protasis,” which is the hypothetical clause beginning, actually or by implication, with the conjunction “if”; and the “apodosis,” which contains the conclusion and actually or by implication is introduced by the adverb “then.” Such sentences tell us that if a certain thing is true or not true, then there is another thing that will be true or not true in turn. It is a form of logical syllogism designating the relationships which exist between various realities in life. Few languages are as well adapted to such careful expressions as is the Greek, so that we may well conclude that it was with good purpose that God provided providentially that the New Testament should be first set forth in that language.
Of the large variety of conditional sentences found in Scripture, a good number relate to the matter of salvation and/or the relationship of man to God. They tell us when and how these can or cannot take place with all of the certainty of God’s Word. God defines for us what various relationships in life will or will not exist, as, for example, in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” We are told very simply that those who have faith and believe in Jesus Christ are spiritually alive and will have this life forever, while those who do not believe are without such life and remain under the judgment of God. And so one can go on through the Scriptures to learn from them of the various relationships which God has or has not established for life. We are told that when certain things are or are not true, there are things in relationship to them which are or are not true as well. And it would seem that it is these which Dr. Schilder had in mind when he proposed his last rhetorical question, “Do you mean by condition something which God has joined to something else, to make clear to us that the one cannot come without the other and that we cannot be sure of the one, unless we are at the same time assured of the other? Then we say unconditionally: ‘conditional is the password!’ ” No one has any problem with this.
The problem is that this is not what the controversy was about, nor does it reflect the use of the words condition and conditional in ordinary life.
If we go to the dictionary, we find in Merriam-Webster (perhaps the most generally accepted authority concerning American English) that the first definition of the word condition reads:
Condition … condicere, to agree, fr. com- + dicere to say, determine
a: a premise upon which the fulfillment of an agreement depends: stipulation
b obs: covenant
c: a provision making the effect of a legal instrument contingent upon an uncertain event; also: the event itself.
And with that we gain a little feel as to why Dr. Schilder entitled this chapter of his book, “Be Careful with Dictionaries,” for it is this very meaning which he rather pointedly avoids in his questions. Rather than meeting this meaning of the word condition straight on, Schilder confronts us with several implied meanings, carefully embedded in a series of rhetorical questions which by themselves are rather obscure. In fact, it is only when one goes on to his commentary on them, given in the following chapter, that one gains some feeling as to what he actually has in mind.
Take, to begin with, the first of these questions: “a. By condition do you mean something which would bind GOD? Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password!’ ” One wonders. What does he mean by a “condition … which would bind GOD?” But in the next chapter he goes on to explain:
a. God is not bound by anything but only by His Own determined will, His Own fixed decree or counsel, and His Own good pleasure which He fulfills in His Own way and time. In His sovereign good pleasure He has decreed that only the elect will effectively obtain the benefits which He has promised in the covenant of grace to those who believe in Him. He has elected certain people to salvation and thus to faith, hope, love, and all that can and has to follow. Election is election; it is free, unchangeable, and particular. God has chosen the elect to be drawn out of total death and therefore He cannot make conditions which had to move Him to elect them or would authorize Him to do it. He chooses on the ground of His good pleasure and for no other reason. Whatever the elect yield of faith, hope, or love, in short, of good works, they can only yield out of the power that He Himself has granted to them in free grace, according to His eternal good pleasure.
Apparently what Dr. Schilder has in mind is to affirm his agreement with the Canons of Dordt, and with the Scriptures upon which they are based, that the election of the children of God is freely determined by Him on the basis of His own good-pleasure, and that He is not bound simply to respond to the will of man. The way of expressing this is strained, almost strange; but the point he apparently seeks to make is well taken. No one would disagree with him on that, or with his chosen rhetorical response, “Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password!’ ” We would certainly agree with that.
So Schilder goes on to his next question with its similar response, which is: “b. By condition do you mean something for which God has to wait before He can go on? Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password.’ ” Here again one is struck by the difficulty of the language, as he describes a condition as “something for which God has to wait before He can go on.” Certainly this is not much of a definition, but it contains a thought he wants to get out nonetheless, as comes out in his explanation:
b. Therefore, God doesn’t have to wait for anything. He doesn’t have to wait for one who is dead to come. For a dead person does not come, unless he comes from death to life. And this making-alive lies only with God the Lord Himself, Who is the One who makes alive by His own unique (propnum) work. He doesn’t have to wait for anything before He elects. He doesn’t have to wait for anything before He, for instance, takes to Himself little children who die in their infancy, because He takes care of His Own work as is intended in the case of the children mentioned in the Canons of Dort I, 17. He doesn’t have to wait for anything with adults, whom He has called by His Word, for when He, in their life, wants to say A, then He says A. When God wants to say B, then He does it, yet always considering the sequence which He Himself made for His Own work, where the B follows the A. That is, in all cases in which He has decided that an A should be written before a B. And if it pleases Him to write a B, a C, a D, or a Z, in a different way, then He does it, wherever He wills. We think of insane people for instance, who are not able to believe or confess in an ordinary way and whom He, as far as it pleases Him, will bring to salvation.
Clearly he is speaking to one of those problems into which he and his Liberated colleagues had gotten themselves with their view of a conditional covenant. In maintaining that the covenant is conditional, they had to deal with the fact that there are certain baptized members of the church who never really come to that capacity where they are able in a self-determining way to fulfill these conditions by way of a conscious faith, such as little children who die while still infants, and retarded souls who never develop to a point of personal responsibility in life. And so the doctor would assure us that these conditional structures do not bind God in such a way that He cannot make exceptions. Regarding that, he would pick up his rhetorical refrain again, “Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password.’ ” And, at least for the moment, we will let that go as well.
It is in his third proposition that Schilder finally gets to the real point — or nearly so, “c. By condition do you mean something we have to fulfill, in order to merit something? Then we say unconditionally: ‘unconditional is the password!'” And with his commentary he explains:
c. Since it all happens freely, merit is completely out of the picture. It wasn’t there in Paradise and after that even less. It is actually foolish in this connection to think in terms of more or less; earning anything is principally excluded, also with Adam, the inhabitant of Paradise, who was righteous before God. Faith is therefore no merit and faith is never a ground for salvation and neither is repentance.
And with that, for us, the disappointment sets in. Here he comes to the heart of the whole controversy—and he sidesteps it. One can feel Hoeksema’s frustration as well, when his first response to this whole series of questions was, “But I want to add one more proposition. It is similar to C with this difference that I want to stop at ‘fulfill’ and omit ‘to merit something.’ The proposition then reads: ‘We do not believe in conditions which we must fulfill.’ Period.”1 His point is clear. By adding the idea of merit, Schilder was diverting the whole focus of attention from the real point. The fact is, of course, that no one was even suggesting the matter of merit regarding a conditional action. Actually not even Arminius had done that. For meritorious considerations one has to go all of the way back to the Semi-Pelagianism of Rome. No one was accusing anyone of that; and the introduction of it into this discussion could only serve to divert attention from the real question which cried to be discussed. The question was not whether man must merit something in order to receive the blessings of the covenant, but simply whether there are certain things which man must do, certain conditions he must meet, before the grace of the covenant is realized in his life; or, to put it in Hoeksema’s terms, is faith a means used by God to bring His children into covenant relationship with Himself? That was the heart of the whole matter, and adroitly Schilder, by throwing in a few extra words which were extraneous to the real issue, had sidestepped the problem, forcing Hoeksema, by way of default, to lay down what he considered the real definition of what a condition is, which he did in these words: “A condition is a prerequisite which one must fulfill or comply with in order to receive something or have something done unto him.”2 But it was a definition, the discussion of which was never met.
What was being dealt with was not just a fine point of theological distinction, or a mere matter of proper terminology; it had to do with the very dynamics of the salvation with which God brings His people into the covenant of grace.
Herman Bavinck put the issue in this way:
After all, when the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. 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.3
And it was that with which Rev. Hoeksema and the Declaration of Principles was concerned. Is the covenant of grace completely God’s work, or partially man’s? And are the works of man within it conditions he must meet, or are they means given by God to bring His people into a living relation of friendship with Him?
For so many years Hoeksema had tried to bring about an opportunity to sit down and discuss this matter with Schilder and, if it might be, with his colleagues, as one can almost feel in his brief reply to what Schilder was writing:
“O, how sorry I am, that all these things were not discussed between us as deputies for correspondence, rather than to confer, behind our back, with the Revs. De Jong and Kok, who were not authorized, neither, judging from the letter of Prof. Holwerda, capable to speak for our churches! …”4
But in the providence of God it was never to be.
1 Standard Bearer, Vol. 27, p. 222.
2 Ibid., p. 222.
3 Bavinck, Herman, Our Reasonable Faith, Eerdmans, p. 272
4 Ibid., p. 221.