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We promised to devote separate attention to the matter of the historical sphere of the covenant, an idea which was criticized by the Rev. J. Geertsema in Clarion, The Canadian Reformed Magazine, (Nov. 4, 1978), pp. 489, ff. The Rev. Geertsema does not believe that there is such a thing. He writes:

And when Prof. Hoeksema comes with the idea of a historic sphere of the covenant for the reprobate in the church, then I say, “No, I cannot find this in Scripture.” 

I do not believe that the one child, being baptized, is “in the covenant,” and that the other child being baptized is only “in the sphere of the covenant,” but not “in the covenant” itself. I do not believe that God assures the one child in its baptism: “I make My covenant with you in Christ”; and that God says to that other child in its baptism: “To you I give nothing. For you your baptism is a fake baptism, an empty form.” Can God really do a thing like that? Is baptism meant that way? Then we had better baptize adults who have the certainty that they belong to the elect, and not babies.

Now I have already pointed out in the previous issue that Geertsema imputes to us something that we do not believe when he suggests that we teach that in the case of reprobate children baptism is a fake baptism and an empty form. Baptism is never fake, and it is never an empty form. Neither, however, does baptism say anything individualistic, such as Geertsema suggests, to and concerning a given infant when it is baptized, “I make My covenant with you in Christ.” One simply does not find such language in our Baptism Form. If you try to apply the beautiful language of our Baptism Form to every individual child that is baptized, you not only run completely stuck and run into insoluble problems, but you also will end by making God a liar. The latter, of course, no one wants to do. But to avoid this you have to read the Baptism Form with some kind of mental reservation or some kind of mental parenthetical insertion. The Kuyperians have to insert a “presupposition.” The Heynsians and the Liberated have to insert the idea that the promise is only an objective bequest to all which is dependent upon the fulfillment of a condition. The difficulty for both is that the Baptism Form speaks of facts, realities. Take, for example, that beautiful prayer of thanksgiving after baptism: “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee, that Thou hast forgiven us, and our children, all our sins, through the blood of thy beloved Son Jesus Christ, and received us through thy Holy Spirit as members of thine only begotten Son, and adopted us to be thy children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism. . . .” Notice the strong and factual language. But the moment you try to understand that “us and our children” in such a way that it includes all children born of believing parents and all children who are baptized, these words will choke in your throat because you know that they are not true. You are compelled to insert something, such as “presupposedly” or “conditionally.” But as soon as you make the insertion, all reason for thanksgiving is gone. What this remark comes down to as far as my difference with the Rev. Geertsema is concerned is this: let him explain the Thanksgiving in our Baptism Formin such a way that it includes reprobate children. I very boldly say in advance: he cannot do so! And yet he wants to have God say in baptism to everybaptized child, ‘”I make My covenant with you in Christ.”

But let us return to that question of a historical sphere of the covenant. 

First of all, let me point out that this historical sphere of the covenant is not limited to the reprobate in the church. Also the elect children, the children of the promise, the seed, are born and grow up in that same historical sphere of the covenant. But there is this difference: the elect children, the seed, are in the covenant, while the reprobate are not. The reprobate children are born and grow up in the sphere of the covenant; but the promise, “I will be your God,” is not for them. Instead, all that they experience in that historical sphere of the covenant functions, and that, too, according to God’s purpose, for their hardening and condemnation. The elect children are both in the sphere of the covenant and in the covenant; and. all that they experience in that sphere of the covenant functions as a means of grace and for their conversion and their salvation. 

In the second place, it is very evident from the paragraphs quoted above that the real objection of the Rev. Geertsema is not to the idea of a historical sphere of the covenant, nor even to the idea of a historical sphere of the covenant for the reprobate is the church. No, the real objection is to the fact that we do not include the reprobate in the covenant. Geertsema wants all children of believers, both elect and reprobate, in the covenant. He wants to make them all heirs of the promise. He wants to maintain that God in baptism says to all: “I make my covenant with you in Christ.” In other words, he wants general grace and a general promise in the sphere of the covenant. At the conclusion of his article he desperately tries to bring in election and reprobation; and in doing so, he vainly tries to find support for his view in the Canons of Dordrecht. But he corrupts the Canons, and actually writes as though the First Head is not First and is not followed by all the other heads of doctrine flowing from that First Head—on divine predestination. And he reminds me of a remark made by an old friend when the condition controversy was raging in our churches in the 1950s (thanks partly to the Liberated), “De genade komt achteraan als een hinkende paard. (Grace lags on behind like a lame horse.)”

But, in the third place, there can be no doubt about the reality, in the light of Scripture, of such a thing as the historical sphere of the covenant. That historical sphere of the covenant coincides with the historical line of the covenant, which is always the line of generations. First of all, this is simply history, recounted in Scripture. Permit me to quote from Herman Hoeksema’s Believers And Their Seed, pp. 86, ff., for a brief summation of this idea: 

“Already before the Deluge there is always a twofold seed in the spiritual sense: the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. And this twofold people is also found in the line of two distinct generations, that of Seth and that of Cain. It is not thus, that now for a time the Lord establishes His covenant with Seth’s generations, in order then to return again to Cain. Nor is it thus, that God always has His children in both generations, and calls them out of both lines. No, the generations of Seth are the generations of God’s people, while the generations of Cain are not included in God’s covenant. This is so strong that there can be no reasonable doubt but that by the expression “sons of God” the Sethites are meant, while “the daughters of men” refers to children from the generation of Cain. 

“Before the flood, therefore, the line of God’s covenant runs in the continued generations from Seth to Noah. Indeed, even then not all who are out of Seth according to the flesh are God’s people. There are indeed many who fall away, and the line is repeatedly pruned and narrowed down until only eight souls can enter into the ark of salvation. But that does not change the fact that the line runs through in the generations of Seth even unto the flood. 

“After the flood it is no different. The line of Shem is chosen by the Lord. In that line God establishes His covenant. Of course, this may never be understood as if after the flood there was never any child of God except in the line of the generations of Shem. This is no more true than that all the fleshly children of Shem were spiritual children of God. Things always develop organically. Also Japheth is out of Noah. And undoubtedly for a time, next to the covenant generations of Shem there were also other lines of children of God, especially from Japheth. But only in Shem’s generations does the line run through. In those generations is the main line. With them God establishes His covenant. Presently, out of Shem comes Abraham; and out of Abraham is Israel as the nation to whom pertaineth the covenants and the giving of the law. Out of Israel is Judah; and out of Judah is David; and out of David’s house is the Christ of God, the head of God’s covenant. Throughout the Old Testament, therefore, the line of God’s covenant runs in generations, the continued generations of believers. From Adam to Christ is one unbroken line. Indeed, that line sometimes almost disappears from view; but it is never broken. 

“Neither is it true that this historical line is broken at the dawn of the new dispensation, as Baptists of every description like to present it. Indeed, the exalted Savior breaks the bonds of Israel’s national existence and gathers His church in the new dispensation out of all tribes and nations and tongues. Nevertheless, it is simply history that also in the days of the New Testament the line of continued generations is drawn through also among the nations. This accounts for it that also the preaching of the gospel follows such a definite line, a line which may be readily traced on a world map. The course of the gospel is from Jerusalem through Samaria to Antioch, presently through Asia Minor to Greece and Rome, from whence it spreads throughout Europe, and in due course crosses the ocean with the generations of God’s people to the Western Hemisphere. History is never thus, that here and there a few believers are called, that a few individuals enter into the church of Christ, called out of the darkness of heathendom, in order then to disappear again from those regions. But history is thus, that the church of Christ in the world is established and in various definite places continues to exist in generations. Fact is that even now every particular church in the world establishes itself in the conviction that God will maintain His covenant even to a thousand generations. In that faith believers come together. In that faith they join with one another. In that faith the church is visibly instituted by them, and churches and schools are built by them. After all, they do all these things with an eye to the future. If they were actually of the conviction that the Lord did not establish His covenant with believers and their seed, and that therefore a certain church could simply end with the existing generation, they would not act thus. But now it is different. The Lord establishes His covenant and will perform the work of His grace in the line of the continued generations of believers. Also in the new dispensation the line of the history of God’s covenant runs through, even to a thousand generations.” 

One could enlarge on this idea in connection especially with the history of the old dispensation. Who does not recognize, for example, that the line ran through in the case of Abraham not with Ishmael or the sons of Keturah, but with Isaac? Who does not recognize that in Isaac’s case the line was continued with Jacob, not’ with Esau? Who does not recognize the significant difference between being a member of the nation of Israel and being an uncircumcised Philistine, or a Moabite, or an Edomite? 

But remember, secondly, that there is a clear distinction between the “seed” and the generations in which that seed is brought forth and grows up. Scripture itself makes this distinction. I will not now refer to Romans 9, which has much, very much, to say on this subject. I will limit myself to one very simple passage, Genesis 17:7, where God says to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and theeand thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant. . . .” Notice already from this text by itself that there is a distinction made between seed and generations. Those generations include all the fleshly children of Abraham in the line of Isaac, all the physical descendants of Abraham in the line of the covenant in the old dispensation. The “seed” is something different, however. We must not make the mistake of identifying the “seed” with the physical descendants of Abraham. And we have Scripture itself to teach us this. For in Galatians 3:7-9 we read: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” Or combine the thoughts ofGalatians 3:16, 29. In verse 16 we read: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” And in vs. 29 we read: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” It is plain, therefore, that the “seed” is the believers, those who are Christ’s, that is, the elect. And the line in which that seed is continuously found is the line of the generations of believers—generations which contain, indeed, more than that elect seed, contain also reprobate children, but in which indeed that elect seed, the heirs of the promise, are found. 

It is that line of the generations of believers which constitutes essentially the historical sphere of the covenant. 

But there are many facets which belong to this sphere. To it belongs, for example, training in a godly home and by believing parents. To it belongs the fact that one comes under the preaching of the Word, the fact that one comes under the administration of the sacraments, the fact that one comes under catechetical instruction, the fact that one comes under the exercise of Christian discipline, and a host of other, related, matters. Elect children of believers and reprobate children of believers are born, develop, live, grow up in that same sphere and under the same influences. In that sphere they share all things—except grace. For the elect heirs of the promise all of the above function as a savor of life unto life, while for the reprobate, carnal children all of the above function as a savor of death unto death, and that, too, according to God’s purpose. 

More, much more, could be said about this subject, particularly about the reprobate in the sphere of the covenant. But let this suffice for the time being.