Herman Hoeksema has been instrumental in the development of the Reformed faith. The area of his outstanding contribution is the doctrine of the covenant: what the covenant is; the sovereignly gracious nature of the establishment and maintenance of the covenant; the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant; the Biblical basis of infant baptism; and related truths.¹ The prominence of the doctrine of the covenant in Scripture and its significance for the Reformed faith are widely recognized.
The doctrine of the covenant is found in Calvin and the Reformed creeds, but in somewhat embryonic form. Through the years, Reformed theology has grappled with the question: What is the covenant? Sounder views and less sound views have been propounded. In time, a view of the covenant gained currency in Presbyterian and Reformed circles that jeopardized the sovereignty of God and the gospel of grace. It began to be accepted that the covenant is a pact, entered into mutually by God and men, dependent on conditions fulfilled by both parties, and serving as the means by which the covenant people acquire salvation. Notes in jarring discord with the sweet music of the Reformed faith began to be struck in the Reformed churches—a dependent God; the decisiveness of man’s will in salvation; the extension of God’s grace to a wider circle than the elect; the failure of this grace in many cases; and the achievement of final salvation through divine and human cooperation.
The better Reformed theologians heard the dissonance and manifested uneasiness with the covenant conception that passed for truth in the Reformed sphere. But it was Hoeksema who subjected that conception of the covenant to rigorous scrutiny in the light of Scripture; who rejected it, root and branch, as in fundamental conflict with the Reformed faith; and who, not without the aid of certain predecessors and some contemporaries, set forth, in preaching and writing, a “new” doctrine of the covenant. Hoeksema viewed the covenant as the living relationship of friendship between God and His people in Christ; as “unilaterally” established and maintained by God alone in free and sovereign grace; as a gift bestowed upon the elect in Christ and them only; and as itself the highest good for man both in time and eternity.
There are evidences today, outside the Protestant Reformed Churches, that this view of the covenant represents real development of Reformed doctrine. Berkouwer, who has very little good to say of Hoeksema as a Reformed theologian in his dogmatics, has recently questioned whether the notion of the “covenant of works” has a rightful place in Reformed theology, although he does not mention Hoeksema’s longstanding and well-known repudiation of the covenant of works.²
Here and there, men are also voicing dissatisfaction with the conception of the, covenant as a mutual compact or agreement of God and men and are moving towards a doctrine of the covenant that approximates Hoeksema’s bond of love and friendship. The Presbyterian theologian, John Murray, in a work called The Covenant of Grace, has criticized the teaching that the idea of a mutual compact, or agreement, constitutes the essence of the divine covenant. Instead, Murray suggests that the covenant of grace is a “sovereign administration of grace and of promise.” The essence of the covenant is: “relationship with God in that which is the crown and goal of the whole process of religion, namely, union and communion with God . . .”³
The non-reformed theologian, Jakob Jocz, writes along the same lines. Jocz has made a fresh, significant study of the Biblical doctrine of the covenant.4 Even though the book is ravaged by un-Reformed teachings, including many concessions to higher criticism, it sets forth a doctrine of the covenant strikingly different from that embraced by many Reformed theologians in the past, namely, a conditional pact entered into mutually by God and men. Jocz asserts that the concept of the covenant is so, important that it is the “unifying principle” of the entire Bible. “Covenantal theology is at the root of biblical thinking” (p. 9). He criticizes the notion that the covenant is an agreement between God and men. In close connection with this, he denies that the covenant is conditional. Rather, the covenant is “the conditionless and . . . irrevocable will of God to be present to His people” (p. 43). The “root-idea” of the covenant is made plain in the tabernacle in Israel: “communion between the Holy One and man,” which is “the essential Old Testament message about God” (pp. 47, 48). Jocz argues that the covenant is unilateral. He quotes Weber with approval: “the covenant in the Old Testament setting is ‘essentially determined by one side’ and . . . it is God who acts as initiator. It is therefore not a ‘contract’ in the usual sense, ‘implying two partners, but an arrangement made solely by the one who determines it.'” He speaks of “the one-sided nature of the covenant relationship,” and says that this is “decisive for a theological understanding of the Bible” (pp. 30, 31).
I interject this little discussion of doctrinal development into our study of the call of the gospel for two reasons. The first is that the teaching of the offer of the gospel is bound up with the doctrine of the covenant as a conditional pact between God and men. Wherever men defend the offer, you will find them also defending a conditional covenant, i.e., a covenant dependent on man. Our repudiation of the offer must be considered against the background of the doctrine of the covenant developed by Hoeksema.
But the main reason for this excursus is to point out that an investigation of Reformed theology of the past, such as we propose with regard to the teaching of the offer of the gospel, must recognize the possibility, not only of a lack of clarity on a certain doctrine, but also of a lack of consistency. One must not be surprised to see contradictory elements struggling for supremacy, sometimes in the same, godly man. So near does the life-and-death struggle of the truth and the he come to us. The Spirit of Christ leads the Church into all the truth, but only—as church history clearly shows—in the way of constant labor and battle. Examination of Reformed theology of the past, therefore, a going back to our sources, does not consist merely of compiling quotations from here and there. Satan, after all, can find quotations in Scripture itself to buttress his case, As Luther said, we must discriminate when we study the fathers: “the places where they speak from the Spirit should (be) picked out and held fast, and those where they savor of the flesh let go.”
There has been real development in Reformed theology as regards the doctrine of the covenant, and this development has included the Reformed faith’s saying “No” to views that clamored to be accepted from within the Reformed churches and its purging of views which for a time even gained some acceptance. It is similar as regards the doctrine of the call of the gospel.
None of this should be understood as a tacit admission that Reformed theology of the past can be made to prove whatever one wants it to prove, specifically now as regards the offer of the gospel. The thrust of Reformed theology is perfectly clear—so clear that a child can perceive it. Its genius is plainly opposed to the theology of the well-meant offer. Reformed theology of the past, from Calvin on, stands up to say “Amen” to the teaching that the preaching of the gospel is grace to the elect alone. It acknowledges this doctrine, as sharply and clearly formulated by Hoeksema, as its own well-born child and disowns the notion of the offer as illegitimate.
One other thing must be borne in mind as we turn to Reformed theology of past ages. We are concerned to discover whether Reformed theology teaches, or even favors, the doctrine that the preaching of the gospel expresses God’s grace to all men; the doctrine that the preaching is motivated by a sincere desire in God to save all men; the doctrine that the success of grace depends upon the will of men; and the implied doctrine that Christ and His cross are for all men. This is what is meant by the well-meant gospel-offer in Reformed circles today.
It is of no consequence, therefore, that the term, “offer,” appears in Calvin, in other Reformed theologians, and in such Reformed creeds as the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The word, “offer,” had originally a sound meaning: ‘serious call, presentation of Christ.’ We are fundamentally uninterested in warring over words. No, but we are interested to ask concerning the doctrine of the offer: is it Reformed?
(to be continued)
¹ Hoeksema’s conception of the covenant is set forth in his books, Reformed Dogmatics (p. 152; pp. 214-226; pp. 285-336) and The Triple Knowledge, Vol. 2 (pp. 504-553), in a pamphlet, “God’s Tabernacle with Men.” For his view of the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant and the basis of their inclusion, cf. his Believers and their Seed and the pamphlet, “The Biblical Ground for the Baptism of Infants.” All of these are available from the Reformed Free Publishing Association.
² G.C. Berkouwer, Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971). PP. 206ff.
³ John Murray, The Covenant of Grace (London: The Tyndale Press, 1954). pp. 30ff.
4 Jakob Jocz, The Covenant (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1968).