Recently we have read Prof. Engelsma’s series of articles on “The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers” with interest and appreciation (The Standard Bearer, March 15, April 1, April 15, May 1, July 1, and September 15, 1990). In the fourth article of this series, we read your brief explanation of the Free Reformed and Netherlands Reformed (hereafter, NRC) denominational views of the covenant of grace. As a NRC pastor/theological instructor and an elder/principal, we were surprised to find these denominations’ covenantal views grouped together in your explanation. The Free Reformed teach a three-covenant view in which the covenant of grace is established with all the baptized seed as an offered promise of salvation, while the NRC teach a two-covenant view in which the covenant of grace is established with the elect only.
Rev. G.H. Kersten, who provided a leading role in the organization of the NRC (1907), wrote the following in his Reformed Dogmatics: “The elect are in the covenant of grace from eternity, given by the Father to the Son. Those that were given by the Father and purchased by the blood of Christ, are incorporated by regeneration into the covenant of grace in time by the Holy Spirit, so that they and they alone become partakers of the benefits of the covenant. The elect, and only they, receive an actual right to the riches of the covenant, and the Lord shall be their God and they shall be His people” (vol. 1, p. 244). This has been the covenant position of all NRC teaching; consequently, the NRC view fits more accurately under the “third explanation” in your article than under the “first” where you placed it.
Where the NRC emphasis would differ from that of the Protestant Reformed, we believe, lies more in how we view those who are under “the sphere of the covenant” (i.e., the visible church), but are not spiritually incorporated into the covenant (i.e., the invisible church). In its desire to clearly maintain this biblical distinction, NRC teaching emphasizes that no person has a biblical right to view himself as a saved, covenant child of God, who is not bringing forth fruits of saving faith, such as love to God and others, “true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness, etc.” (Canons of Dordt, I, 12b). The NRC view disagrees with both presumptive and dormant regenerational views which imply regarding children as regenerate before fruits of regeneration are evident. “And think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: Therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” (Mt. 3:9, 10; cf. Mt. 7:17-20; Jn. 8:39). In short, the NRC does not believe that Scripture and our Reformed confessions speak of regeneration as something dormant or to be presumed, but as a new birth which is real, personal, and fruitful by the grace of God (cf. Canons III-IV, 12).
Finally, because the NRC believe that we may not view our children as saved before they reveal biblical evidences of salvation (unless physically or mentally incapable of doing so), this does not mean that we view our children as “heathen” or that “a dead person in a Christian home and in the sphere of the church has no advantage over a dead person outside of a Christian home and the church” as your article states (page 341). God has chosen to work salvation through the means of His Word (Rom. 10:13-17). A heathen is one who has never heard or read God’s Word. Our baptized children are outwardly separated by God from the heathen to be brought up under His Word, the means which God has promised to savingly bless. After distinguishing the inwardly from the outwardly circumcised (or baptized), Paul states that those in the outward sphere of the covenant have an important “advantage” because the oracles (Word) of God are committed to them and not to the heathen. “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 2:28-3:2).
In summary, NRC teaching stresses:
1. The covenant of grace is made with the elect in Christ only, not with all the baptized seed (as taught by the Free Reformed).
2. We may not view ourselves or others as regenerate if we are not evidencing the biblical fruits of regeneration.
3. Our children who are raised under the sphere of God’s covenant and are as yet unregenerate, are distinguished from heathen children in the same manner as the children of Old Testament Israel were, for they are reared under the oracles of God, which are the Lords primary means of grace. Out of sovereign grace, the covenant-keeping God is pleased to normally work along covenantal lines in regenerating the seed of believers through Spirit-worked application of His precious, inerrant Word.
We would sincerely appreciate the printing of this correction of the NRC view of the covenant of grace for your readership. We are encouraged to find in your article a clear, biblical explanation that God’s covenant is established with the elect only in Jesus Christ. We continue to appreciate the quality of biblically-based instruction provided in The Standard Bearer under your editorship. May God bless and guide us in His truth.
(Dr.) J.R. Beeke (Pastor/Theological Instructor)
Grand Rapids, MI
(Elder) J.W. Beeke (Principal)
Chilliwack, British Columbia
The contribution to our discussion of the covenant from the quarter of the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC) is welcome. Because the brothers Beeke question my analysis of the covenant-view of the NRC and because they call attention to the important, practical issue of our approach toward our children in our rearing of them, I think it necessary to answer their letter in the editorial column of The Standard Bearer. The first installment appears in this issue.
Twice I read the article by Prof. Decker, “Earnestly Contending for the Faith” (The SB, October 1, 1990). Each reading afforded a fuller meaning of the seriousness of the times in which we are living, especially as we can see what is happening in the church, and more recently in the churches of Reformed traditions. The second epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, the first few verses, tells that there will come a “falling away first” before the “man of sin be revealed.”
I find Prof. Decker’s writing very pleasant reading, and most edifying. It is also evident from the photos accompanying the article that the PR Seminary now has a good number of students. For such blessings the entire PR populace is no doubt most thankful…. Your article was indeed food for the soul.