“Faith is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness.”—Netherland Confession.
“The Synod rejects the errors of those: Who teach: That God chose out of all possible conditions the act of faith as a condititon of salvation.”—Canons of Dordrecht.
The above quotations are taken from Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, IV, 124; III, 236; III, 556; III, 242; and Kuyper, Dictaten Dogmatiek Locus de Foedere, p. 134. And translating these quotations in order, they run as follows:
“Faith itself is also no condition for the other benefits of salvation (justification, sanctification).”
“The covenant relation did not depend on the keeping of the law, as a preceding condition; it was no covenant of works, but rested only upon God’s electing love.”
“The (covenant) is not dependent on any condition of man.”
“There are really in the foedus gratiae (covenant of grace, H.H.), i.e., in the gospel, which is the proclamation of the covenant of grace, no demands and no conditions.”
“Conditional this covenant of grace is never. God gives everything. Everything for nothing. And nothing of what God gives is made dependent upon the contra-presentation of man.”
That faith is a condition is now clearly and definitely expressed by the Rev. Petter in Concordia of February 2, 1950.
Heretofore he strongly suggested that this was his meaning, but he never definitely expressed it. Writes he:
“I may remind the readers that I have not before touched on this point. I have rather avoided it and confined myself to those expressions in Scripture that unquestionably speak of a conditional relationship in the life of the covenant, or in the process of salvation.
“IfI have quoted or referred to others who spoke of faith as a condition, it was only to point to the prevalence of the concept in Reformed writers and history.
“But I was especially interested in the Scripture passages that teaches conditions in some way, howsoever. To argue against these would be to argue against Scripture, it would seem.
“But now the question of faith. Is that also a condition?”
And in the rest of his article he answers the question in the affirmative: faith is a condition unto salvation.
And the Rev. Petter appeals directly to Scripture to prove his point. This is, of course, in itself perfectly safe. No Reformed man can find fault with this. Scripture is our ultimate court of appeal. But it is not Reformed to pass by and ignore the confessions. As Reformed theologians we must either be able to point out that what we teach is in harmony with the confessions, or, if in our opinion Scripture teaches anything that is contrary to the three Forms of Unity, we must go the way of a gravamen.
Recently it has frequently been emphasized by different writers that we must regard nothing as binding but Scripture and the confessions.
With this I perfectly agree. Of course, we should never forget that in opposition to the Christian Reformed Church we reject the Three Points as interpretations of the confessions. And this means that according to the Protestant Reformed Churches the Heynsian as well as the Kuyperian conception of common grace is contrary to the confessions. In other words, we, and not the Christian Reformed churches adhere to the confessions pure and simple, without any additions. And the rejection of the so-called interpretations of the confessions of the Christian Reformed Church as embodied in the Three Points is binding too. And therefore it is certainly true that we regard nothing binding except the Scriptures and the confessions. The latter are for us the interpretation of the former.
This implies, of course, that we should always be able to show clearly that whatever we teach is in harmony with the Three Forms of Unity.
Now what if the, situation arises that the confessions in our opinion appear to be in conflict with the Holy Scriptures. May we, in that case, simply appeal to the Scriptures and develop our own views and teach them in conflict with the confessions? God forbid.
If that were the case, no doctrinal basis could ever be established as a bond of union for any church. And therefore it is certainly the Reformed stand that within the Reformed churches the confessions are just as binding as the Scriptures, and that therefore we are not permitted to teach anything contrary to them. And if anyone has any objection against the confessions, he should refrain from publicly propagating his views, but brings his complaint, gravamen, in the way of consistory, classis, and synod to the attention of the churches.
This is what we have promised by signing the formula of subscription, which reads as follows:
“We, the undersigned, professors of the Protestant Reformed Churches, ministers of the gospel, elders and deacons of the Protestant Reformed congregation of ____________, of the classis of ___________ do hereby sincerely and in good conscience before the Lord, declare by this, our subscription, that we heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the confession and catechism of the Reformed churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, do fully agree with the Word of God.
“We promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing.
“We declare, moreover, that we do not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the church free from such errors. And if hereafter any difficulties or different sentiments respecting the aforesaid doctrines should arise in our minds, we promise that we will neither publicly nor privately propose, teach, or defend the same, either by preaching or writing, until we have first revealed such sentiments to the consistory, classis and synod, that the same may be there examined, being ready always cheerfully to submit to the judgment of the consistory, classis and synod, under the penalty in case of refusal to be, by that very fact, suspended from our office.
“And further, if at any time the consistory, classis or synod, upon sufficient grounds of suspicion and to preserve the uniformity and purity of doctrine, may deem it proper to require of us a further explanation of our sentiments respecting any particular article of the Confession of Faith, the Catechism, or the explanation of the National Synod, we do hereby promise to be always willing and ready to comply with such requisition, under the penalty above mentioned, reserving for ourselves, however, the right of an appeal, whenever we shall believe ourselves aggrieved by the sentence of the consistory, the classis or the synod, and until a decision is made upon such an appeal, we will acquiesce in the determination and judgment already passed.”
Now I do not mean to say or even to suggest that the Rev. Petter is in conflict with the confessions. But I cannot agree with his method of passing by the confessions to appeal directly to the Scriptures to defend his conditional theology.
On my part I have shown thus far, and I hope to show more clearly in the future, that the proposition: Faith is a condition, is confessionally un-Reformed. I have clearly pointed out for anyone that can read:
1) That according to the confessions faith is always presented as an instrument of God, part of salvation itself. And faith as an instrument which God works in our hearts certainly cannot be a condition at the same time.
2) That according to the confessions faith does not occur as a condition in the decree of election, and therefore cannot possibly appear as such in time.
3) That the very term condition is always put in the mouth of the Arminians by the Canons of Dordrecht.
Now when the Rev. Petter, in spite of what I wrote, does not even try to defend the proposition, Faith is a condition, on the basis of the confessions, but appeals directly to Scripture, I claim that he does not follow the Reformed method.
Nevertheless, I will examine the exegesis of the texts which the Rev. Petter offers in defense of his proposition. Before I do this, however, I want to call your attention to the introductory remarks of the Rev. Petter in the above-mentioned article of Concordia. Writes he:
“And now someone may immediately reply, ‘There you have it, if you say A, you have to say B. If you begin on that path you have to arrive at the Arminianism condemned in Canon I of Dordt.’
“But this is not so. Dr. Schilder has said, ‘What word could we mention that has not been misused by the slander-mouth of Satan?’ This is a good question. For if we would let ourselves be guided by the misuse that can be made of a word or concept we would have to drop, we would have to ban from our vocabulary, such words as Trinity, Incarnation, Providence, Creation, Sanctification, Election, Hardening, Perfection. Yea, the list of words can be continued that have been distorted into false doctrines. The safety of the church lies in walking carefully and finding the narrow path of orthodoxy by continually lighting each step with the Scriptures. If she begins to dogmatize she slips either to one side or to the other of the narrow path.”
This paragraph is deceiving. I do not. say intentionally, on the part of the Rev. Petter. But it is deceiving nevertheless. Terms like the Trinity, the incarnation, providence, creation, election, etc., have been clearly maintained and defined over against heretics. This certainly cannot be said of the term, Faith is a condition. In the second place, the paragraph is deceiving because the Rev. Petter draws a false contrast between what he calls dogmatizing and “lighting each step with the Scriptures.” I claim that dogmatization in the true sense of the word is the same as constructing the truth on the basis of Holy Writ. And in the third place, I claim that the safety of the church certainly lies in adhering faithfully to the confessions and not in trying to light each step with the Scriptures, independently from those confessions. And in the Reformed confessions faith has clearly been circumscribed not as a condition, but as an instrument of God whereby He implants us and engrafts us into Christ.
Further, the Rev. Petter writes: “And I would consider it very unwise for us as Protestant Reformed Churches, who are a part of the struggling, developing, storm-tossed church of our day, if we would simply by denial dispose of a whole question of this nature, when it is evident from the whole history of the concept of conditions that it cannot be so disposed of, and when such theologians as Dr. Schilder, Ridderbos, Berkhouwer, do not at all brush it away, but carefully explore the boundaries of its use and misuse. Certainly theology is in a stormy growing stage, and not a little even because of the stirring influence of the Barthians, or the dialectical, existential movement of theology.”
My answer is that all the more because, as the Rev. Petter puts it, theology is in a stormy growing stage, we should all the more anchor the ship of our Protestant Reformed Churches into the safe ground of our confessions as they are the interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. And from that safe ground we should not try to go back, as the Rev. Petter does with his conditional theology, but rather proceed in developing the pure Reformed truth. And once more, according to our confessions faith is never presented as a condition, but always as an instrument of God whereby He implants us into Christ. And let me add, that although in the history of Reformed theology faith has indeed been presented as a condition, it is equally true that the best tradition of Reformed theology, especially as represented in our confessions, must have nothing of the proposition, Faith is a condition. Finally, we want to call your attention to one more introductory remark of the Rev. Petter’s:
For we shall have to remember first of all that both the word salvation and the word faith are in Scripture used in a very flexible way. The aggrieved in the time of the controversy spoke of lively, moving, (bewegelijke) usage.
“Although it is perfectly justifiable to come to theological definition and subscription, yet we may not overlook this method of Scripture. And there is a very practical danger, the danger, namely, that we begin to preach dogma, instead of the gospel in connection with life in all its implications. I think we all know from experience how prone we all are to do this.”
I claim that we can never do anything with so-called flexible terms. It is true, of course, that in Scripture many a term has more than one connotation. But if so, such terms should not remain flexible, but should be carefully defined. And in the second place, I want to remark once more that I do not like the attempt of the Rev. Petter to establish a false contrast between dogma and the gospel. When I preach the Heidelberg Catechism, I certainly preach dogma. But no one has ever accused me of preaching cold intellectualism and dead doctrine when I preach on the Heidelberg Catechism. To me the preaching of the Catechism or the preaching of doctrine is the same as the preaching of the gospel. True dogma is only systematized truth of the Scriptures and is absolutely indispensable. . And also when the Rev. Petter tries to introduce his theory of faith as a condition into our churches, he simply introduces nothing but another dogma. And that other dogma is in my conviction not the gospel.
And now for the texts which the Rev. Petter tries to quote to prove his proposition, Faith is a condition.
It is deplorable that the Rev. Petter offers no thorough exegesis of the texts which he adduces.
The first Scriptural proof is contained in the following paragraph:
“Thus the simple words in the exhortation to baptism: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Here the salvation is in the future and is expressed as following upon, being related to, believing and being baptized.”
It is evident that the Rev. Petter offers no exegesis at all of this text. Yet exegesis is sorely needed, especially if he wants to appeal to this passage of Scripture as a proof for his contention that faith is a condition unto salvation. All the Rev. Petter offers as a sort of an explanation is that “the salvation is in the future, and is expressed as following upon, being related to, believing and being baptized.” But the question arises immediately: what is that future salvation which the text mentions? That the future tense is used of the verb to save is very evident; but to what future salvation does the term refer? Does it merely refer to a future in time, so that salvation is presented as being future in relation to faith? That seems to be the interpretation of the Rev. Petter, although he does not literally express this. It is implied in the words, “salvation. . . .is expressed as following upon . . . .believing.” Only on the basis of this exegesis does the Rev. Petter draw the conclusion from the text that faith is a condition unto salvation. His interpretation, therefore, would read somewhat as follows: “If one complies with the condition of faith, God will apply salvation to him, that is, give him regeneration, justify him, etc.” If this is not his meaning let him explain himself. And according to this interpretation he does not conceive of faith as being a part of our salvation, but as preceding the latter. Both are in time, but salvation in all its implications follows upon faith as a condition which man must fulfill.
This, of course, is not true. Scripture never presents salvation as following immediately upon faith. In this sense, as salvation in time, it does not follow upon faith as a condition, but it includes faith. Faith is part of salvation itself.
Nor is this the meaning of the text. Whenever the future tense is used for salvation in Scripture, it either expresses the futurity of the eternal Messianic kingdom or certainty or both. And the text undoubtedly refers to the first meaning mentioned, although the third, (both the future glory and the certainly of salvation), is by no means excluded. Thus the text means: Whosoever believeth has the sure promise of future salvation in the kingdom of eternal glory.” That this is the meaning is very evident from the contrast: “But he that believeth not shall be damned.” Also this damnation to which the text refers denotes the damnation in eternal desolation, not in time. And therefore, the contrast of the text demands that also the future term “shall be saved” refers not to any salvation in the present time, but to the eternal Messianic glory in the kingdom of heaven. But if this be true, and it is true, then the text certainly offers no proof at all for the proposition which the Rev. Petter tries to prove, that faith is a condition unto salvation. For they that are saved by grace through faith, and that not of themselves, are certainly saved already in the present time and can never lose the salvation of eternal glory.
But we have no more room in the present issue to discuss the other texts which the Rev. Petter adduces as proof for his proposition that faith is a condition unto salvation.