Breathtakingly Unfounded Presumption?

It was in 1985 that I first subscribed to the Standard Bearer, so now I have accumulated fourteen volumes on my shelves, where they form a highly valued spiritual asset. The SB is the most instructive Christian periodical I know, and is a great blessing to me. The clear, incisive writing of the contributors on a wide range of highly relevant topics is a refreshing antidote to the woolly-mindedness so prevalent in evangelical circles. When the SB arrives at my door, invariably the first page I turn to is the one with “News From Our Churches.” It enables me to enter into the life and fellowship of the churches a little, even though the news is months late by the time I read it! Thank you for the SB. I would not be without it.

Of course, even in the best Christian literature one finds points of disagreement, or issues that one finds difficult to understand. For me, one such issue that comes up from time to time in the SB cropped up recently in an otherwise fine article on Reformed education by Prof. Dykstra. In reference to the covenantal character of Reformed education he described the children of believers in the following terms: “…these children have been redeemed from sin. They are sanctified by the blood and Spirit of Christ. They have within them the principle of a new and holy life” (15 Jan. 1999; p. 189). Now I think we would both agree that God saves His people principally in the lines of generations, and also that God’s covenant is with believers and their elect children. Of course, we do not know who are the elect, so I can understand why, from a subjective point of view, believing parents may wish to look on their children (all of them) as being born again, until the absence of repentance for sin and a profession of faith indicate otherwise. But what I cannot understand is how Prof. Dykstra can express himself in such unqualified and objective terms. What are his biblical grounds for using such categorical language?

Anyone reading that article without prior knowledge of the PR position could be forgiven for concluding that the PR churches, or at least Prof. Dykstra, believe that all the children of believers are elect and born again; that they are all not only to be viewed as born again but are as a matter of fact elect, redeemed from sin, sanctified by the blood and Spirit of Christ, and possessors of the principle of a new and holy life. Does Prof. Dykstra realize that this comes across to the reader, especially one reading the SB for the first time, as a breathtakingly brazen and unfounded presumption, whether intended or not? Even to someone like myself, who has some familiarity with the PRC’s “election theology of the covenant,” it appears at best misleading and confusing, and at worst contradictory.

Perhaps the problem is primarily one of language rather than theology, but even so the choice of words turns it into a theological issue and presents a major stumbling block to someone like myself, outside the PRC, who struggles hard to understand his position on this matter. It underscores the need for care in one’s use of words.

But there is another possibility: simply that I am dull of understanding and need the matter to be better explained to me. Perhaps Prof. Dykstra could give of his time to show me more clearly from the Scriptures what he means.

Over the years I have grown to love the PR churches, albeit from afar, and have the deepest respect for their ministers. Their firm adherence to the truths of sovereign and particular grace marks them out as the brightest of lights against a church world that is descending rapidly through Arminianism into apostasy. I fear for the state of evangelicalism in this country.

John Hooper

Cornwall, England

RESPONSE:

A hearty thank you for the kind words for the Standard Bearer and for the Protestant Reformed Churches. May all the readers of the Standard Bearer be so appreciative and careful in their reading!

I also appreciate your taking the time and effort to write about my article, and am happy to respond.

The statement which you question is, as you recognize, part of the very difficult doctrine of the place of children of believers in the covenant. The article in the January 15, 1999 issue was a continuation of an earlier article in which this issue was discussed. Although the statement in question was separated from the earlier installment, the view of children expressed in this statement must be understood in that context. In the first installment (Dec. 15, 1998, p. 140) we wrote as follows:

The covenant is the relationship of friendship that God sovereignly establishes with His people in Christ. God establishes this covenant with believers and their seed in the line of continued generations (Gen. 17:7). Within the sphere of the covenant, God ordinarily regenerates His elect as children. Thus parents are able to give instruction to their children and that instruction does not fall on dead, stony hearts, but on regenerated hearts changed by the Spirit.

This agrees with what you write, that God’s covenant is with believers and their elect children, not all children of believers.

In that first article, the next doctrine discussed was the organic nature of the covenant. This is the key for understanding the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the covenant, and I am glad for the opportunity to emphasize it. In that first article, then, the above was followed with this:

How do believing parents deal with their children? Because of the promise of God to establish His covenant with believers and their seed, believing parents deal with their children as covenant children. Though the parents know and believe that the lines of election and reprobation cut through families of believers, they view their children organically. In the same way, Paul addressed the church of Philippi: To all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi. Again, as he wrote to the church in Ephesus: To the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1). Paul knew that not everyone in the churches of Ephesus and Philippi was a believer. Why then address them thus? He did so because he viewed the group organically, as one, as the church of Jesus Christ.

In the same way parents view their children as covenant children, even though it may well be that God has not established His covenant with every child.

It is on that basis that the statement in question can be made.

Notice also the immediate context of, and the biblical support for the statement.

Secondly, the instruction is covenantal in the manner in which teachers deal with students. That is to say, the students are viewed as covenant children. They are not treated as unbelievers, those who need to be regenerated. Rather, the students are considered to be what the Bible calls them, namely, Jehovah’s heritage (Psalm 127:3) and God’s children (Ezekiel 16:20-21).

Christian schoolteachers thus deal with their students as regenerated, believing children. They know assuredly that these children still have their evil natures. They are sinners. Christian schoolteachers know that their students will sin. They will need the rod and reproof.

At the same time, these children have been redeemed from sin. They are sanctified by the blood and Spirit of Christ. They have within them the principle of a new and holy life. They can and must be called to a life of thankful obedience.

One thing more must be noted, and that is what the statement does not say. It does not say “all” these children have been redeemed from sin, or that “all” these are sanctified by the blood and Spirit of Christ. Nor is this the intent. I would not make such a statement if it were meant to be a pronouncement that all these children of believers were elect. However, the believing parent and the teacher in the Christian school view these children organically. They do not presume that these children are all regenerated. Nonetheless, they must treat children of believers in harmony with what God calls them — the heritage of Jehovah and God’s children, as noted above. — Prof. Russ Dykstra