Controversy and Confusion over the Covenant: Is it not time to settle it? (3)

Previous article in this series: March 15, 2011, p. 268.

God’s covenant of grace is essential both for life and for doctrine. Doctrinally, it is the crown jewel of the Reformed faith, uniting, demonstrating the harmony of all the doctrines, particularly the doctrines of salvation. The importance of the covenant in practical terms cannot be overstated—it defines our relationship to God. What, in all the world, can be more important than a man’s relationship with God? Nothing.

Understanding that vital significance of this doctrine, and knowing that the doctrine has been discussed by the children of the Reformation for almost 500 years now, we deplore the lingering confusion, the lack of clarity and agreement on this central doctrine. And we grieve that that of which Peter warned is happening in Reformed churches— false teachers are covertly bringing in their damnable heresies, using their heretical doctrine of the covenant as their base (II Pet. 2:1ff.). I refer, specifically, to the “Federal Vision” proponents, who base their teaching of justification by faith and works squarely on their faulty doctrine of God’s covenant. Justification by faith alone, the doctrine on which the whole of the Reformation turned, is denied. And, no surprise, this heretical teaching on the covenant is being used to draw the Reformed churches back to Rome. Doctrinally and institutionally, the life and existence of Reformed churches is at stake. The need for clarity is urgent.

Yet, the confusion persists. And there is no sign that the churches intend to come together. It seems that most are content to allow this confusion to continue.

Is that really the case? And, I ask, can a Reformed believer in his Reformed church tolerate this? I ask each and every Reformed reader, are you willing to allow the crucial doctrine of God’s covenant to remain vague and undefined? Are you, Spirit-filled believer, content to stand idly by and watch as this glorious doctrine of God’s covenant is perverted by heretics? Is there not in you such a love for the truth, for God’s truth, and for His church, that you will not allow this doctrinal confusion to continue? Is it not time for the Reformed church world to settle the issue?

But how? I believe that there are two possible ways that Reformed churches worldwide could come together with the goal to set forth the biblical (Reformed) doctrine of the covenant.

First, such a gathering could come together seeking the unity of the church and praying for the guidance of the Spirit of Christ. The current age is surely one of ecumenical activity. And true ecumenical activity is proper and right. Jesus’ church is His body. His body is one. It is a Reformation principle that we ought to manifest the unity of the church as much as possible. But the unity of the church is in the truth of God. A superficial unity of various churches that is built on the smallest possible confession, vaguely written—that is false ecumenism. The Reformed church understands that and repudiates it.

No, unity is in the truth. The greater the agreement in doctrine, the stronger is the unity. This is true at all levels—in a congregation, in a denomination, and between denominations. The truth of God binds believers and congregations together. Denominations seeking true unity will be seeking doctrinal unity by means of discussion of God’s truth.

Should not this crucial doctrine of God’scovenant, then, be on the minds of all Reformed churches seeking to manifest the unity of Christ’s body? Ought not discussion of God’s covenant be on the agendas of Reformed ecumenical gatherings? How can there be unity among churches without settling this vital question: What is our relationship to God? What is God’s covenant of grace?

I urge Reformed churches who are serious about manifesting the unity of the body of Christ to seek to resolve the controversies, to remove the confusion over the covenant. Churches that adhere consciously and deliberately to the Reformed creeds; churches that love the truth of God, and desire to set forth the Reformed (i.e., biblical and confessional) doctrine of the covenant—let these churches come together in humility to discuss, and by God’s grace make some progress in setting forth, the truth of the covenant.

There are a couple of well-known groups of Reformed churches that meet in order to strive for unity. I have in mind such bodies as NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) and the ICRC (the International Council of Reformed Churches). Is either of these bodies willing to take steps towards this right and noble goal?

That is one way to strive for unity. It has some honorable precedents in the Reformation—attempts of the Reformers to remove differences in conferences. Admittedly, it does not always produce the desired goal. But the Reformers are to be admired and emulated in their strenuous efforts to settle doctrinal controversies among them for the sake of unity.

There is another avenue for settling doctrinal controversy. It also has a fine model to follow. It involves a denomination calling all the Reformed churches together to help her settle a doctrinal controversy in her midst. The results of this method were excellent. I have in mind the “great Synod,” the Synod of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands held in the city of Dordrecht in the years 1618 and 1619.

Controversy, over the central doctrines of salvation, convulsed the Reformed churches. The Remonstrants were teaching grievous errors—that God’s election was conditioned upon man’s believing and obeying to the end of his life; that Christ died for all men and every man to make salvation possible for all. These followers of Arminius insisted that fallen man has a free will that must cooperate with God’s grace, and, in harmony with that, that God’s grace, while necessary for salvation, was a resistible grace. They therefore called into question the precious doctrine of the preservation of the saints. We cannot be sure, they piously declared, that the believer, united to Christ, will not in the end fall away.

Parenthetically, we point out that some of these very errors are being promoted today in Reformed churches on the basis of erroneous covenant doctrine. They are dressed up a little differently, but the essence is the same.

What did the Reformed churches in the Netherlands do about these grievous errors? She sent out a call for help, a request to come to her aid. These churches recognized that the heart of the Reformation truth was at stake. At the same time, they were acknowledging that they were not the only ones holding to the Reformed truth. They understood that the other Reformed churches had a vital interest in preserving the truth of salvation by sovereign grace. They were convinced that the rest of the Reformed church world would in fact be able to contribute to a clearer presentation of this doctrine. Besides, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were themselves badly divided by the controversy. They desired the help and support of the Reformed church world.

Hence they invited all Reformed churches in Europe to help them deal with the heresies and heretics in the Netherlands. The Reformed men in the Netherlands were convinced that these false teachings were contrary to the existing creeds—the Heidelberg Catechism and the Confession of Faith. Some Remonstrant teaching (on election and total depravity) was explicitly contrary to the existing creeds; other errors were not expressly condemned by the confessions, but were certainly contrary to the Bible, and outside the bounds of the confessions.

They had false doctrine to be examined. They had heretics to be tried.

They called for help.

The Reformed churches responded to the call. They came to the Synod of Dordrecht—an international gathering of Reformed churches.

The delegates to the synod listened to the accused—the Remonstrants. They studied their (the Remonstrants’) written documents. They discussed them publicly. Each delegation sat down individually and discussed the doctrines. They searched the Scriptures, and submitted their views on each point of doctrine. The “opinions,” as they were called, though not identical, showed amazing harmony. The delegates were united on the essential truths of salvation by sovereign grace.

The result is known to all. A committee, made up of delegates from several different Reformed denominations, drafted a body of canons that was presented to the whole, discussed, and adopted article by article. And all the delegates— Dutch delegates and foreign delegates—signed the canons.

How binding was this document? The Reformed churches in the Netherlands did not immediately call it a creed. The synod referred to it as “the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine [i.e., that doctrine contained in the Heidelberg Catechism and Confession of Faith, RJD] made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19.” It was binding doctrine, and the great synod required that all officebearers sign their agreement to these decisions (see the Form of Subscription).

It was not similarly binding on the foreign churches who had sent delegations to Dordrecht. Nonetheless, history has demonstrated that those Reformed churches that did not hold to the doctrines set forth in the Canons soon lost their Reformed character altogether.

The “great Synod,” then, is the second model for the churches today. In fact, that model has certain advantages over an ecumenical discussion. First of all, such a gathering would be dealing with concrete cases of men accused of error. The delegates would not be dealing with doctrine in the abstract, and struggling to know what to include in their study. Rather, laid before them would be specific teachings that could be studied, evaluated, and, as needed, rejected. The truth would be affirmed over against the lie. This certainly is a Reformed principle of church government, and usually yields the best, that is, clearest, results.

Secondly, such an assembly has the advantage also that it has ecclesiastical authority. It is not a mere discussion, as profitable as a discussion may be. It has the authority of a group of churches to make decisions that must be followed, at least in that body of churches. Other participating churches would have to face the decision of whether or not to adopt the decisions as their own.

Could it be, then, that a particular church (denomination), facing the reality that men are teaching doctrines contrary to the creeds— whether explicitly, or with teachings that lie outside the bounds of the confessions—calls the Reformed church world to assist her? Recognizing that she is not the only Reformed church, that the creeds belong to all the Reformed churches, and that all the churches have a significant stake in this doctrine of God’s covenant, she asks others to join her, seeking to reject the errors clearly and decisively, and set forth the doctrine of the covenant clearly.

In some churches, the heart of the gospel is being denied by false teaching on the covenant. The need is great. It takes courage to bring ministers to judgment, but faithfulness to the truth demands it.

May God give courage and strength to Reformed men to stand for His truth and to condemn false teachers. And as they do this, they may well consider the advantage of the Reformed churches speaking with one voice, setting forth the truth of God’s covenant clearly. Let them, then, issue the call. The Reformed churches as a whole may be very well served.

… to be concluded.