Previous article in this series: October 1, 2011, p. 10.
Sixty years ago a steadfast friend of the Protestant Reformed Churches (PRC) came into being. It is the anniversary of our friend, the Declaration of Principles (Declaration), that we celebrated in the last article. Remembering that anniversary is remembering a significant event. Rev. Herman Hoeksema, and others with him, maintained that the document was “one of the most important documents that was ever adopted by our churches” (34.11:244). It was the settled and binding decision of the PRC on “one aspect of ‘common grace'” that represented the culmination of years of Protestant Reformed thought (28.5.53).
It represented the culmination of years of Protestant Reformed thought because the issue faced in 1953 was not substantially different from the issue faced in 1924. Herman Hoeksema insisted that the PRC in 1924 rejected bindingly the Heynsian doctrine of the covenant, which was the error of the well-meant gospel offer applied to the covenant. This Heynsian doctrine of a grace to all the baptized was not essentially different from the Liberated covenant doctrine of a promise to all the baptized (27.7:150—51).
Over against that doctrine the Declaration clearly states the doctrine of the covenant of the Reformed creeds.
The Declaration was not adopted because the PRC thought that the Reformed creeds were unclear on the issues, but it was adopted because she believed the confessions were perfectly clear on these disputed points and she wanted to state her belief over against those who said they were Reformed and yet denied these things that the three forms of unity taught. As Hoeksema said, “The strength of this declaration [is that] it rests exactly on the assumption that the confessions are certainly not ambiguous” (27.1:7).
In a controversy over the covenant, the Protestant Reformed Churches come from a position of strength, from a conviction. It is the conviction of the Declaration, resting squarely on the Reformed creeds.
Particularly important is the Declaration’s interpretation of Canons 2, Article 8: “All the covenant blessings are for the elect alone” and “God’s promise is unconditionally for them only”; and of the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 74: “little infants surely cannot fulfill any conditions. And if the promise of God is for them, the promise is infallible and unconditional, and therefore only for the elect.”1
Of importance as well is the insistence of the Declaration: “faith is not a prerequisite or condition unto salvation, but a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby we appropriate the salvation in Christ.”2
The Declaration also repudiates the teachings “that the promise is conditional and for all the baptized” and “that the promise is an objective bequest…giving to every baptized child the right to Christ and all the blessings of salvation.”3
These statements in the Declaration are a basic description of Heynsian and Schilderian covenantal theology rejected at that time. Today, by their own admission, false teachers among the federal vision have developed this covenantal theology. The basic point, however, remains the same: by baptism every single baptized child is incorporated into Christ and receives Christ and all His benefits. There is a universal—common—grace in the sphere of the covenant.
In this light, one must explain the Declaration’s inclusion of the section on common grace. That is not merely a reminder of some past controversy, but it lays the groundwork for the covenantal controversy of that time. Any Reformed covenantal doctrine must harmonize with the teaching of sovereign, particular grace; must reject common grace, that is, a grace of God that is wider than the decree of election; must thoroughly reject the well-meant gospel offer; and must insist on the total depravity of the unregenerate man.
Although the issues of 1924 were more basic and logically and necessarily had to be faced first, the end of those issues came nearly thirty years later. Indeed, I highly doubt that, apart from the events of 1924, 1953 would have been possible. The theological groundwork of 1924 found its conclusion at last in 1951 “in the fact that our [the Protestant Reformed] churches finally officially declared what according to their conviction is the truth as expressed in our confessions, especially concerning fundamental principles, all concentrating around the promise of God and the preaching of the gospel, and therefore around one aspect of ‘common grace'” (28.3:52). In the Declaration the truth of God’s sovereign, particular grace was applied decisively to the promise of God in the covenant.
In the final analysis, this is also the emphasis of Scripture: God loves Jacob and hates Esau. If one can be convinced that God loves every baptized child and gives to every baptized child the promise of salvation, it is a very small step—indeed demanded by that theology—to teach also that God loves all men and offers to all men salvation in Christ. In a similar way, if I am convinced that God does not love all men and does not offer to them salvation on the mission field, then a penetrating analysis of the reasons—all finding their source in the creedal doctrine of election and reprobation—demands that I apply that same truth in the church among the baptized. The rejection of Arminianism demands the rejection of a universal promise in the covenant. The teaching of a universal promise in the covenant is essentially Arminianism.
Remembering the adoption of that little document is remembering a significant anniversary! Its adoption was a victory for the truth of sovereign grace (in the covenant) and for the Protestant Reformed Churches’ continued witness to that truth over against the Arminianism of universal grace (in the covenant).
I pray that this important document, which gives the reasons for the existence of the PRC, is not as unknown as might be supposed. Certainly we would assume that it has been discussed in societies, and no doubt we assume it has been taught in the Essentials of Reformed Doctrine classes, and almost certainly it has been explained in some form or other.
And if not, then a modest proposal on this the “diamond white” anniversary of the Declaration: let us study it!
I am thankful to report that on September 22 Prof. David Engelsma, professor emeritus of the Theological School of the PRC, and recent editor of the Standard Bearer, gave a speech entitled, “The 60th Anniversary of the ‘Declaration of Principles’: A Commemoration,” to the annual association meeting of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (RFPA). We could only hope that his speech will be the occasion for the members of the RFPA to return to their own churches with a renewed appreciation for and interest in the study of the Declaration.
Would that the subsequent year in the PRC would be devoted to a renewed interest in and study of the Declaration of Principles! Perhaps an officebearers’ conference or two! Studied in church societies! Seeing that the original purpose of the Declaration was for missions, would that evangelism committees would make a renewed study of it and incorporate the distribution and promotion of it into their labors! Perhaps Professor Engelsma could be persuaded to give his speech elsewhere, as I know he will in the Chicago area at the request of the Senior Adult Bible Study of Peace Protestant Reformed Church.
And failing all this, perhaps only this: that the membership of the PRC and all other interested Reformed believers would obtain a copy of the Declaration and at least read it and consider it themselves.
What a wonderful year it could be to remember this significant anniversary of our faithful friend of sixty years!
Rev. Hoeksema could write that the future did not look bright for the Protestant Reformed Churches in 1949. In this he proved prophetic. Another statement he made at that crucial moment also proved true: “Whatever will become of the Standard Bearer, and for that matter of the Protestant Reformed Church[es]…, God will preserve His Church, and the gates of hell shall never overshadow her” (26.1:6).
God saw fit to preserve His church also in the institution of the PRC. Of that the Declaration is proof, as is the continued existence of the SB and of the PRC’s official adherence to the principles set down from the Reformed creeds in the Declaration.
The anniversary of that document is also significant today in the ecclesiastical climate in which the PRC find themselves. That document, inasmuch as it was responsible, by God’s grace, for the preservation of a distinctively Protestant Reformed witness to the truth of the Reformed creeds concerning the doctrine of the covenant, is responsible also for the fact that the PRC have an important testimony to give to the Reformed church world over against the heresy of the federal vision. Even if it could be said with absolute confidence that the heresy of the federal vision is no threat to the PRC, they would be negligent, culpably negligent, if they would not speak about the truth of the covenant set down in the Reformed creeds that the federal vision is so gleefully attempting to destroy.
Let us declare it!
1 Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches, in The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), 418—19.
2 Ibid., 423.
3 Ibid., 424, 426.