Election and the Covenant Promise

Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Not as though the word of God hath taken non effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:

Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called.

Romans 9:6-7

To us in the Protestant Reformed Churches, what we read in the pamphlet of Dr. C. Veenhof, called Appel!(in English, “Appeal!”), was amazing and not a little disconcerting. Had it not been that the letter of Prof. Holwerda, and its publication by Rev. Ophoff, had become the center of attention, Veenhof’s pamphlet certainly would have gained more prominence than it did. Still, it did not go unnoticed. Even the most adamant defenders of the Liberated churches among us were stunned, hardly knowing what to say. We, after all, had been thrown out of the Christian Reformed Church because of our refusal to accept common grace, and had been forced to form a new denomination. But this pamphlet, written by one who we thought understood and agreed with us, set forth a kind of common grace in a most grievous form, particularly when he wrote:

Above all we must know and maintain . . . that God, our God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself baptizes the little children of the Church! . . . When a child is baptized the LORD Himself comes to that child, He Himself sprinkles the water on its head and says very really and personally: John, Mary, Anna, I, the LORD Himself, baptize you in my Holy Name. You are now of me!… That is, He says to all those children, head for head, day in and day out, meaningfully and sincerely: I am the LORD your God. I establish my covenant with you. I wash you from all sin in the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; My Holy Spirit lives in you. In short: I declare to you the complete forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation: all the treasures and riches of which I can and will give to mankind….

It was difficult for us to see in this anything other than a common grace in the most crucial area of Christian life, the covenant of grace.

As it was, however, it soon became apparent that this was no passing fluke. What Dr. Veenhof had written stood at the emotional heart of the Liberated covenant view. In fact, it is very difficult to overestimate how important it is to the Liberated people to be able to say of each and every one of their baptized children that they have the personal promise from God that they are his, and that should they die tomorrow they will go to be with him in glory. Around this their whole doctrinal position seems to revolve, so that any compromise of it would constitute a loss of the essence of the covenant as they see it, and an impingement upon the very veracity of God. If baptism and the covenant are to have any meaning to them, and if God is indeed true, the expression “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” must mean ,that the individual child upon whom the baptismal waters fall is very really saved, and that what is said in the traditional Reformed baptismal form will hold for that child personally, namely

that God the Father witnesseth and sealeth unto us, that he doth make an eternal covenant of grace with us, and adopts us for his children and heirs…. the Son sealeth unto us, that he doth wash us in his blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection so that we are freed from all our sins, and accounted righteous before God…. the Holy Ghost assures us, by this holy sacrament, that he will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, applying unto us, that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our ‘sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle in the assembly of the elect in life eternal.

The “us” of this statement, they feel, must relate unequivocally to that individual who is being baptized, whether adult or infant, or its significance is gone.

For us, however, this presented numerous problems.

To begin with, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, the fact is that when children who are baptized and raised within the church come to years of maturity, inevitably some of them forsake the life of the covenant to live in the world. It is part of Christian experience for us just as it was in Bible times. In the end it simply does not hold that with each child who receives the covenant sign and is raised within the church God “doth establish an eternal covenant of grace with him,” adopts him for his child and heir … washes him “in his blood from all his sins, incorporating him into the fellowship of his death and resurrection …” and dwells in him, and sanctifies him to be a member “of Christ, applying unto him, that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away ofhis sins, and the daily renewing of his life, till he shall finally be presented without spot or wrinkle in the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” In the end, gratefully, this is true of some, but certainly not of all. This is something that may be said of the church of God generally, of “us” as a group (as the form states it, and as it was true of Israel as a nation); and it is something for which we may pray, as we do in both prayers of the baptism form; but it is not something that is guaranteed to every individual. Rather, it is the sad experience of God’s church that there are many that do go astray and finally end up far removed from “the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” Eli knew this sorrow, as did Samuel, and David when he wept so bitterly at the death of Absalom; and one cannot doubt that it is true in the Liberated churches as well, as it is in the Protestant Reformed, in Presbyterian churches, Baptist, and all others. Baptismal waters do not insure salvation for anyone anywhere.

This position, accordingly, would appear to us to stand in direct contradiction to such basic biblical and Reformed truths as that of the perseverance of the saints. If every particular child has the promise of the covenant and eternal salvation individually bestowed directly by God, how is it possible that some should thereafter fall away? Certainly it would seem self-evident that, if such a child falls away, he was either never truly a covenant child, or the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does not in actuality hold. And so, as far as we are concerned, the question for our Liberated friends remains, how can every child born and baptized in the church be very really a participant in the covenant of grace and a recipient of its promises of eternal salvation when some do not persevere to the end?

Nor is it essentially different regarding the doctrine of irresistible grace. If every covenant child personally receives the promise of God and salvation, and that grace of God is irresistible as the Canons teach, must it not be impossible that such a child should not grow in grace to the end? And, yet, in the mentality of the Liberated churches this does not seem to follow. Somewhere in their way of thinking there is a twist which is different from our thinking.

Above all, the problem comes with predestination. This doctrine has stood at the center of Reformed theology ever since Calvin was compelled to defend it against men such as Pighius, Costelho, Bolsec, and others, especially after the Synod of Dordt felt moved to protect it from the views of Jacobus Arminius and his followers. Historically it was called the car ecclesia, or “heart of the church.” Moreover, when we examine the Scriptures we find that this doctrine was set forth most often as a warning against that very presumption which the Liberated seem to advocate. No one, simply because he has been born of believing parents and has received the sign of the covenant (whether circumcision in the Old Testament or baptism in the New Testament), should presume that he thereby is a child of God and an heir in the covenant of grace. Ishmael was certainly among those commanded to be circumcised (Gen. 17:9-14) even when Abraham was already pleading almost plaintively, in verse 18, “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” as though it were already evident that he was not inclined so to do. Jacob and Esau undoubtedly were both circumcised; and yet Esau stands as the primary example in Scripture of one who had been rejected of God even prior to his birth (Rom. 9:10-13). And we are told that upon leaving Egypt the children of Israel (I Cor. 10:2) “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea”; and yet most of them perished in the wilderness (v. 5), including Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and their “little children,” even as Achan and his sons were certainly circumcised (Jos. 5:2) and yet perished under the judgment of God (Jos. 7:25).

But even more distinctly was this pointed out by Jesus, who used the doctrine of election precisely to bring home the fact that no Jew, just because he had received the sign of the covenant as a descendent of Abraham, should take for granted that he thereby belonged to God as an heir of the covenant promises, for, as Jesus said (Luke 3:8), “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham,” or more pointedly, perhaps, to these very Jews (John 10:25), “ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep.” And so Paul also concluded in Romans 9 concerning this very point, “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Rom. 9:6, 7), after which he went on to develop the doctrine of election in one of its most pointed presentations.

The problem is, however, that when election is brought in regarding this, the Liberated almost inevitably call, “foul.” They are very determined that the doctrine of predestination—which they at other times acknowledge—is not something that ought to be brought into consideration regarding the covenant of grace. As J. Kamphuis says in his book The Everlasting Covenant, “We should not, as it were, burden the concrete speaking of God with the mortgage of ‘the eternal counsel.'” Repeatedly they claim that to do so is to become scholastic and overly logical, as though this were a very bad thing. And it is there, perhaps, where our inability to work together enters in. Their logic is different from ours.

Underlying all human thought, as we sought to bring out in a series of articles some time ago, there is a flow of thought which we call logic, based on the principle that if one thing is true the opposite cannot be true, much as we find stated in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” God, the source of all truth, cannot say one thing and also the opposite; and it is from this that we derive our most basic rule of Bible interpretation, namely, that in seeking to determine the meaning of any particular passage of Scripture one must do so in the light of and in harmony with all the rest of the Scriptures. As God is one, so must his revelation be one, even as Jesus said, (John 10:35), “the scripture cannot be broken.” The Word of God cannot be set in contradiction with itself.

Nevertheless, through the ages there has been another view of logic which has at times prevailed, that called “rhetorical logic.” Its concern is not so much in avoiding contradiction as it is with being influential and persuasive; and in order to do this it has allowed in certain instances for what has been called duplex veritas (double truth). Sometimes it is necessary, this view of logic holds, that truth must be seen as coming in opposing forms; and so, in order to be effective and persuasive, human speech may need to maintain ideas that are contradictory to each other. Already in the early Medieval period there were those at the University of Paris who argued that while God created the world theologically, philosophically it is eternal—in striking similarity to the recent claim by Dr. Howard VanTil of Calvin College that scientifically the world evolved, even while we maintain theologically that it was created. So too Dr. C. VanTil argued, in order to defend common grace, that room must be left for “apparent contradictions.” And it would seem that it is to this same framework of thought that our Liberated brothers would appeal, so as to avoid having to bring their view of the covenant into harmony with the doctrine of predestination. Both are to be maintained, but not in immediate conjunction with each other. Each must be treated in its own place and apart from the other, lest the effectiveness of the gospel should be lost. Rhetorically it will not accomplish that to which it is sent.

But the problem also goes deeper than that; and to it we must return.