Once More—The Promise

According to the Confessions and the Scriptures the promise of God as to the form of its words is not an if-clause sentence. Hence, such a sentence as, “If you believe, you will be saved,” is not the promise. But the promise is simply, “I the Lord will save you, my people.”

According to the Confessions. Canons chap. 11, Art. 5, “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish but have everlasting life,” meaning, all, everyone that believeth will be saved without a single exception. In a word, God will save the elect, historically the believers. Such is the promise. It is not, according to the Confessions, an if-clause sentence.

According to the Scriptures. First, let us take notice of the promise as first proclaimed by the Lord Himself by His own voice immediately after the fall. Said the Lord to our fallen and disobedient first parents: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; and it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise its heel.”

This is a simple sentence. It is all promise.

The protevangel is the seed of all the promises spoken thereafter. Hence, nowhere in all the Scriptures is the promise of God as to the form of its words such an if-clause sentence.

In proclaiming to Noah the promise, God said not to him, “I will establish my covenant with you, if you believe”. But he said, “I will establish my covenant with you.” period. And then the Lord went on to say among other things, “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” This is the promise as it came to Noah.

What was the promise to Abraham? Said the Lord to him, “I will make of thee a great nation, and will bless thee, if thou believest, if thou walkest before my face and art upright?” Nay, but this was the word of God to Abraham, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” and here the Lord again put the period. This is the promise as it came to Abraham. The writer of the Hebrews tells us that it is the promise. Says this writer, “For when God made promise to Abraham,” mark you, promise, “because he could sware by no greater, he sware by Himself, saying, “Surely, blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.” Such is the promise as it came to Abraham.

And what said the Lord to Jacob in the vision, to the ill-deserving Jacob on his way to Padanaram fleeing from the results of his sin? It is this, “I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth blessed. And behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all the places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken unto thee.” No such if-clause as, “if thou believest”, once appears in this entire communication. For it is the promise that Jacob hears.

And so again to Jacob by the voice of the prophet (Isa. 44), “Yet now hear, O Jacob my servant; and Israel whom I have chosen; thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee from the womb, which will help thee; fear not, O Jacob, my servant, and thou, Jesurum, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring; and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water courses,” and in a like vein in the chapter immediately preceding (43) “But now thus saith the Lord who created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame be kindled upon thee,” and so on through verse 7. And so again to Jacob—the church of God—by the pen of the apostle Peter, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again: unto a lively hope by ‘the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you (1 Pet. 1). And finally this word of promise (Col. 3), “For ye are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.”

The promise of the gospel is not an if-clause sentence. It is not a sentence the apodosis of which is the promise pivoted on some such if-clause as, “if you believe”. As was stated, “if you believe, you will be saved,” is not the promise.

This, of course, is not denying that such statements as, “If you believe you will be saved,” do not occur in the Scriptures. Fact is that the Bible is replete with them. We have Isaiah declaring in the name of the Lord to the Israelites indiscriminately, “If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land, but if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword.” And so Paul to the brethren of the church at Rome, “Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the flesh, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:12, 13). Certainly, this must be declared unto every man, reprobate and elect alike, to whom God sends the gospel. That certainly is the duty and calling of every human preacher of the gospel, namely, to declare unto all persons promiscuously the command to believe, and further also to declare unto all persons promiscuously that the believers have eternal life, so that, if a man believes he will be saved, but that, if he believes not, he will be damned.

Let us take notice: if a man believes, that is, in case he believes, but not certainly “op voorwaarde”, on condition, that he believes. The above message places every man who hears the gospel under the obligation to believe. What is more, it throws all the blame on the disobedient for the fact of their perishing to their unbelief, and it thus completely exculpates God.

But to call this “if” statement—if you believe, you will be saved—the promise is a serious error. And the reasons are the following:

First, consider to whom the promise is given. The promise is given to Jacob. (See the Scriptures quoted above). And who is Jacob? Jacob is Christ, and secondarily the church of the elect, historically the believers. Think then what it would mean, were this “if” statement—if you believe, you will be saved—the promise, actually the promise. It would mean that God through the ages addressed and is still addressing and will continue to address through the ages to come, to Jacob, that is, to Christ and the church of the elect, historically the believers the following speech: “But now thus saith the Lord who created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name, that is, if thou believest, but if thou believest not, thou, Jacob, Christ, the church of the elect are damned.” And further, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame be kindled upon thee, that is, if thou believeth, Jacob, but if thou dost not believe, thou shalt be damned.” And further, (Isaiah 43:3) “For I am the Lord thy God, the holy one of Israel, thy Savior, that is, if thou believest, Jacob, but if thou believest not, thou shalt be damned.” And further, (verse 4) “Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee, that if, if thou believest, Jacob, but if thou dost not believe, thou shalt be damned.” And finally, “Therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life, that is, Jacob, if thou believest, but if thou believest not, thou shalt be damned.”

It ought to be clear that the promise to Jacob cannot be pivoted on some such “if” clause as If thou believest.” That ought to be clear. It ought to be clear that as pivoted on such an “if” clause, the promise to Jacob is not any longer a promise. True it is that in addition to declaring to Abraham, “I am thy God and the God of thy (spiritual) seed, the Lord also commanded him: “Walk before my face and be upright.” But this command coming, as it always does, to God’s redeemed and spiritually living people, must not be converted into an “if” clause, and as so converted added as a pivot to the promise thereby making it to read, “Abraham, I am thy God—the God of thy salvation—, if thou believest; but if thou dost not believe, I am thy adversary to destroy thee.” This is not the promise, no matter how that “if” me interpreted.

In the first place, such a declaration could not possibly serve the purpose of a promise. Let us consider that the believer has need of knowing that he is a saved child of God. And there is but one who can tell him so that he believes and is assured—and that one is God. And God does tell him in connection, of course, with his fruit bearing as a regenerated person,—thus in connection with his penitence and contrition of heart, in connection with his steadily fixing his eye upon the crucified, risen and glorified Christ, the only hope for a condemnable, lost and undone sinner, in connection with his crucifying his members which are upon the earth and his putting on Christ, and in connection with his fighting the good fight of faith as bearing the reproach of Christ. In connection with this his fruit bearing—the work of Christ’s Spirit in him,—the believer receives from his God the testimony in his heart that he pleases God and is saved for Christ’s sake, which is but another way of saying that in the language of Paul, the Holy Spirit beareth witness with his spirit that he is God’s son.

But there is now this question: From where does the Holy Spirit derive the content of His witnessing with the spirit of the believer that he is God’s son? There is but one answer. From the Holy Scriptures and from the Scriptures alone, and thus also from the sermons of the human proclamator of the gospel, if he truly proclaims the gospel and proclaims it purely.

And this brings us to the question: what is the proper content of this witnessing of the Spirit? The proper content of this witnessing is not the command to believe in Christ. True, the Holy Spirit is in the need of this command to save His people. By speaking this command in their hearts, he fixes their gaze steadily upon Christ. And as looking to Christ and to Christ only, they receive in their hearts the testimony of God that they are justified and saved. Yet, certainly, this command to believe is not the promise. It is not therefore the proper content of this witnessing of the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit speaks this command also in the hearts of the reprobated, but unto their damnation. By this command He hardens them in preparation of their everlasting destiny.

Neither does this “if” declaration, “If you believe in Christ, you will be saved,” form the proper content of this witnessing of the Holy Spirit. True, as proclaimed, it is a joyful sound in the ears of God’s believing people. But it is to them such a joyful sound only because they have received of God testimony that they are His children. And let us consider that the Holy Spirit speaks also this “if” declaration, “if you believe, you will be saved, but if you do not believe, you will be damned,” in the hearts of the reprobated, His purpose being, as already has been explained, to render them responsible and without excuse in the final day of judgment.

What then is the proper content of this witnessing of the Holy Spirit? Precisely this “if-less,” this unconditional promise of God,” I am the God of thy salvation.”

You have a son of let us say eight years who on a day comes home from school looking very sad because the boys at school have been telling him that he is an adopted son of yours, and thus not your very own flesh and blood. Would you think to reassure your child by some such statement as “You are our son, flesh of our flesh, if you behave, otherwise not” That would be a cruel answer. What assurance would there be for the child in such a statement? None whatever. Well do you realize. So as a good parent you look down into the eyes of your child, and say to him, “Believe me, my child, you are our son, our very own flesh and blood,” and right here you put the point, and your child believes you.

It would be a sad thing indeed, wouldn’t it, if all that the heavenly Father had to say to His children is, “If you believe, you are my sons. If you do not believe, you are damned.”

But God does have more to say to His own children, to His redeemed ones. In the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, the Holy Spirit sets before Him these children. He sets before Him the elect, historically the believers, and directs to them the promise, the “if-less” and on this account the unconditional promise—for there is none other. “I am your God,” He says to them, “your Father in Christ, the God of your salvation.” And here He puts the period.

But He does more than this. He commands His servants, the human preachers of the gospel, to follow the example that He sets them in the Scriptures. Thus He commands them that they, too, set before them in their sermons the elect of God, historically the believers, and address to them the promise of God, the “if-less”, the unconditional promise of God—there is none other. These servants, of course, do not know who the elect are. But it does not matter. The Spirit does. For He knows the heart. And the Spirit, who is the only preacher of the Word, speaks this promise, this “if-less,” unconditional promise—there is none other—in the hearts of His children. So, by speaking this “if-less,” conditional promise other promise there is not—in the hearts of His people, does the Spirit bear witness with their spirit that they are the sons of God.

And as it is the duty and calling of the human preachers of the Word to set before him the elect, so is it likewise his calling to set before him in his sermon the wicked and the reprobated and speak to them the very word that the Spirit directs to them in the Scriptures.

It raises the question whether the human preacher of the word must come with two messages, one for the elect, historically the believers, and another for the wicked and impenitent. Indeed he must. So our Confessions teach.

Question 83 of the Catechism. What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?

Answer. The preaching of the Holy gospel, and Christian discipline, or excommunication out of the Christian church; by these two, the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut to unbelievers.

Question 84. How is the kingdom of heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the Holy gospel?

Answer. Thus: when according to the command of Christ, it is declared and publicly testified to all believers, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified, to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted: according to which testimony of the gospel, God will judge them, both in this, and in the life to come.

The human proclamator of the Word must proclaim the gospel as the Holy Spirit proclaims it in the Scriptures. Setting before him in His sermons both the elect and the reprobated, the believers and the unbelievers, he must direct to each the message that the Spirit in the Scriptures directs to each. Then only does he preach the gospel, the full-orbed gospel, but not otherwise. Then only is his preaching what it must be—a two-edged sword. Then only is the kingdom of heaven opened to the believers and closed to the unbelievers. Then only are God’s believing people being assured, comforted, instructed and built up in the faith.

The task of the human preacher of the Word is plain. His task is to preach sermons from which the Holy Spirit can derive plentiful content for His bearing witness with the spirit of the believers that they are the children of God and also sufficient content for His testifying in the consciousness of the unbelievers that “they are exposed to the wrath of God, and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted.”

From all that is presented above it ought to be plain that the promise of God is and must necessarily be “if-less”, and therefore of necessity unconditional, and a gospel, a good news, for the elect only. To them only is the promise.

And how about such “if” statements as “if you believe, you will be saved?” As was stated, the Scriptures is replete with them. And they must be preached for a reason already stated. But certainly there is no need at all of making the “ifs” in such statements to mean “condition”, “voorwaarde”. These “ifs” are not conditions. And nothing is gained by making them so. Certainly it need not be done for pedagogical reasons. Making these “ifs” to mean conditions is only loss. What is lost is the truly reformed position.

Nor must these “if” declarations be called promises of God. For according to the Scriptures and the Confessions, the promise of God bequeaths upon those to whom it is given a legal claim upon salvation and accordingly the right to hope for it. Hence, whereas these “if” declarations are personal addresses directed to all, reprobate as well as the elect, it follows that to call these declarations promises of God is to say that they bequeath also upon the reprobated a claim upon salvation and accordingly the right to be saved.

But this raises questions.

First, how can God bequeath also upon the reprobated a claim upon salvation, if Christ died only for the elect?

Second, if God bequeaths upon the reprobated the right to be saved, why then do they perish? There can be but one answer: either God is unfaithful to His promises regarding the reprobated, or he is powerless to save them, which would mean that God is not the sovereign Lord of the perverse will of the creature, but this will the lord of God.

What then are these “if” statements, if they are not promises? They are simply statements of the fact that if a man believes he will be saved, but that if he believes not, he will be damned.

I place this article in this issue of the Standard Bearer with a view to our coming Synod. As a delegate to Synod I shall go to Synod as armed with the argument of this article. Let the brethren—delegates to Synod—make a study of it, and, if they can, overturn it. If they can’t overturn it, the Declaration certainly should be adopted. For if this argument is true, then nevertheless to reject the “Declaration” is to open wide the doors of our churches to most serious doctrinal errors, talk as we may;

And let us not imagine that in arguing the points involved is to be wasting time in what is called hairsplitting argument. The issue on which our present controversy turns is truly fundamental. It is very actually none other than this, namely, whether there really is such a thing as a gospel of God, and if so, whether this gospel is to be or not to be in our circles. As I see it, the view according to which the promise of God is pivoted on an “if” cuts the very gospel out of the Scriptures conceptionally and thereby renders them absolutely “gospel-less”. If I am mistaken, let the brethren then make this plain to me on the coming Synod by overturning with the Scriptures the argument of this article.

It will not do of course to distinguish between the promise of God and a promise of God, and then to maintain that the promise of God is this “if-less”, unconditional declaration, “I am the God of thy salvation in Christ Jesus,” and that this so-called a promise of God is this “if” statement, “If you believe you will be saved.” To so reason is simply to smuggle into our churches through their backdoor the very view of things that was first cast out through their front door; it is to retrieve what was first repudiated. It is a doing like that of a dog returning to its vomit.