Our Synod of 1951

The Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches of 1951 definitely closed its sessions on October 3.

It belongs, therefore, in the past, and will undoubtedly go down in history as one of the most important synods—if not the most important—that to date was ever held.

The reason lies, of course, in the fact that our churches finally officially declared what according to their conviction is the truth as expressed in our confessions, especially concerning certain fundamental principles, all concentrating around the promise of God and the preaching of the gospel, and therefore around one aspect of “common grace.”

I say finally our churches declared themselves officially on these fundamental principles. It would probably have been more proper, and undoubtedly more expedient too, if they had drawn up a Declaration of Principles as soon as they had become definitely organized as a separate group of churches in 1924. I am convinced that if this had been done, such a declaration would principally have been no different from the one that was adopted by our last synod. And I am also confident that if such a declaration had been adopted at that time by the general consistory, or somewhat later by the classis (a synod was not yet organized, of course), it would not have met with any serious opposition whatsoever. But this was not done, although there was sufficient occasion for it in the adoption of the Three Points of 1924 by the Synod of Kalamazoo. The reason why some such declaration was not drawn up cannot be officially ascertained. I rather surmise that at least one of the reasons was that our churches were small—we consisted only of three congregations: Kalamazoo, Hope and Grand Rapids Eastern Avenue—and we all felt that our ministers and consistories, as well as our people, would all give a strong testimony against the theory of common grace and in favor of the confessional truth of particular grace pure and simple. However, finally our last synod declared in an official document what had been always considered the truth of our Confessions as they are understood and maintained in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

For this we may be thankful to God, Who moved us to maintain the truth of His holy Word as expressed in our Reformed Confessions.

I feel that we may indeed say: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us,” to adopt the Declaration of Principles.

It means that our churches still stand on the same basis on which they stood in 1924, immediately after the Christian Reformed Churches had cruelly cast us out, that is, they still stand on the ground of the Three Forms of Unity without any addition or falsification. For, that the Declaration of Principles stands four- squarely on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity no one has ever contradicted.

This stand concerns our position over against the Three Points of 1924, more especially over against the first of these points, which was always the chief bone of contention. For it is especially the First Point that declares that there is grace of God for the reprobate, and that this grace is especially manifest in the preaching of the gospel. It therefore very really maintained that the promise is for all.

It may be expedient to rehearse that First Point and its history at the Synod of Kalamazoo, 1924.

Literally that First Point as it was finally adopted reads as follows:

“Relative to the first point, which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect, Synod declares it to be established according to Scripture and the Confession that, apart from the saving grace of God shown only to those that are elect unto eternal life, there is also a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. This is evident from the Scriptural passages quoted and from the Canons of Dordrecht, II, 5 and II, IV, 8 and 9, which deal with the general offer of the gospel, while it also appears from the citations made from the Reformed writers of the most flourishing period of Reformed theology that our Reformed writers from the past favored this view.”

As the declaration stands, apart from its supposed proof from the confessions and Scripture, it appears rather harmless. It seems to declare nothing else than that there is a certain favor or grace of God which He shows to His creatures in general. To this we might even have subscribed in 1924. Had we not always ourselves taught that God is good and gracious to all His creatures, that in that sense, according to Ps. 145:9, He is good to all? But, first of all, we must remember that the Synod did not mean to speak of a grace of God over all creation in the organic sense, but definitely wanted to say something concerning the gracious attitude of God toward all men. This is evident already from the introductory clause, “Relative to the first point, which concerns the favorable attitude of God towards humanity in general and not only towards the elect.” This is still more evident from the original report of the committee of pre-advice ad hoc. They had advised Synod to declare that there is a grace of. God or a gracious attitude of God toward humanity in general “in which, of course, the reprobate are included.” But thirdly, that it was indeed the intention of Synod to declare that God is gracious to all men is evident from the proofs which Synod adduced from the confessions and from Scripture. The proofs from the confessions are as follows:

Canons II, 5: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, Shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.” Canons III, IV, 8: “As many as are called by the gospel, are unfeignedly called. For God hath most earnestly and truly declared in His Word, what will be acceptable to him; namely, that all who are called, should comply with the invitation. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest, to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him.”

Canons III, IV, 9: “It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ, offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel, and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come.”

Thus far Synod, which evidently wanted to emphasize the general offer of the gospel, quoted this last article, which continues as follows:

“ . . . the fault lies in themselves; some of whom when called, regardless of their danger, reject the word of life; others, though they receive it, suffer it not to make a lasting impression on their heart; therefore, their joy, arising from a temporary faith, soon vanishes, and they fall away; while others choke the seed of the word by perplexing cares, and the pleasures of the world, and produce no fruit.—This our Saviour teaches in the parable of the sower. Matt. 13.”

And as far as the Scriptural passages adduced by Synod of 1924 are concerned, part of them are supposed to prove the theory of common grace in the Kuyperian sense, and part of them evidently are supposed to teach that the promise of the gospel is general and is grace for all that hear. As to the first the following texts are quoted: Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:44, 45; Luke 6:35, 36; Acts 14:16, 17. And as to the second, which we will here quote in full, the following texts are adduced:

I Tim. 4:10, “For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe.”

Romans 2:4, “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?’

Ezekiel 33:11, “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”

Ezekiel 18:23, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God; and not that he should return from his ways, and live?”

The question may be asked: how did the Synod of 1924 come to quote the proofs from the Confession that speak of the promise of the gospel, and how did they lapse into the error of insisting that this promise of the gospel is grace for all that hear? The answer is rather plain. Synod was looking for proofs from the Confessions for the theory of common grace in the Kuyperian sense of the word (gemeene gratie). But of course, the Confessions did not deal with this question whatsoever. They only spoke of the grace in Christ Jesus, that is, what is called particular grace. And the Synod nevertheless, desiring to prove its point, namely, that there is common grace in the Kuyperian sense of the word, naturally lapsed into the error of the Arminians, which the Confessions, and especially the Canons of Dordrecht, opposed and combatted.

Thus the Synod came to teach that the preaching of the gospel is a well-meaning offer on the part of God to all that hear, or briefly, that the preaching of the gospel is grace for all. And this is the same as saying, especially in the light of the confessions quoted by the Synod, that the promise of the gospel is grace for all that hear.

This is what we called “het puntje van het eerste punt.”

This is the Heynsian view of common grace within the covenant.

And over against this error we always maintained that the promise i§ not general, but particular, and is only for the elect.

And what we always maintained we now declared officially in the Declaration of Principles, which is not a fourth form, but is simply the expression of the Confession and may be tested by the Confession at any time.