Right here we must immediately remark that there has never been any unanimity about this subject among Reformed people. In fact, it cannot even be said that there is a single covenant conception which has won for itself the exclusive name of Reformed in distinction from all other views. In the first place, there is wide difference of opinion with respect to the idea of the covenant itself, apart now from the question concerning the place of the children of believers in the covenant. First of all, there are those who seek the essence of the covenant in the promise of God: “I will be to thee a God.” Thus writes Prof. W. Heyns in his “Essays on the Covenant of Grace,” (Verhandelingen over het Genadeverbond, a mimeographed booklet containing a series of essays which originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Amerikaan. The booklet was published in 1914.) On pages 11 and 12 he writes as follows:
“The essence of the covenant, whereby it is what it is—a covenant of grace, lies herein, that it is the promise ‘to be to thee a God’ given in the form of a covenant, a contract. Every covenant of God with men was a promise given in the form of a covenant. The covenant of works was a promise, the promise of life in the way of obedience, given in the form of a covenant. The covenant with Noah was a promise, the promise not again to destroy the earth by water, given in the form of a covenant. When Peter on the day of Pentecost admonishes the multitude to be baptized with the words, “To you is the promise and to your children,’ he means more particularly the promise as it was interpreted by Joel, but then that promise as it formed the essence of the covenant: for only as such could participation in that promise furnish the right to the seal of the covenant. When the Catechism in Question 74 describes what it implies for children that they, as well as the adults, are comprehended in the covenant of God, then it says that ‘redemption from sin by the blood of Christ and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult.’ And when it is confessed in Question 66 that the sacraments are instituted by God ‘that by the use thereof he may more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel,’ then it is clear that ‘gospel‘ is here intended as identical with covenant, and that ‘promise of the gospel‘ must mean the same as essence of the covenant.
“To have a part in the essence of the covenant, therefore, means to have a part in the promise of the covenant; when God by baptism seals unto us His covenant, this means that participation in the promise of the covenant is sealed unto us, and that as a promise to the fulfillment of which God has obligatedHimself in the way of abiding in the covenant (the same as abiding in Christ, John 15:4). And if, for example, the Lord could make a personal covenant with Jeroboam like that of I Kings 11:38, in spite of what He had determined concerning him in His counsel, then certainly there can be no objection raised against the position that also those who are not elected have a part in the essence, that is, in the promise of the covenant, as a promise to the fulfillment of which the Lord has formally obligated Himself in the way of abiding in the covenant.
“With regard to the question what this participation in the essence of the covenant means, what benefit is the portion of the covenant-member (bondeling), it must be noted that we must distinguish a two-fold application of salvation. Both are mentioned in the prayer of thanksgiving in the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper, as follows: ‘. . .that Thou hast of thy infinite mercy, given us thine only begotten Son, for a Mediator and a sacrifice for our sins, and to be our meat and drink unto life eternal, and that Thou givest us lively faith, whereby we are made partakers of such great benefits.’ Hence, the ‘becoming partakers’ (or, ‘being made partakers’) takes place through faith and is something different than the being ‘given.’ (Translator’s note: In the Dutch version of the above quotation from the Form for the Lord’s Supper, the verbs are respectively geschonken hebben and deelachtig worden.) Similarly in Question 74 (of the Heidelberg Catechism) the two elements of the promise mentioned are ‘the redemption from sins by the blood of Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit, the Author of faith.’ The application of salvation must first of all be that of an objective gift (Dutch: eene objectieve schenking), whereby there is given us a divine right to salvation; and this takes place in and through the covenant. And, secondly, there must be a subjective being made partaker (Dutch: een subjectieve deelachtigmaking), and this takes place through faith, or rather through the Holy Spirit, Who works faith. The first every covenant-member receives, as covenant-member in the full sense. Baptism is a divine seal, ‘an undoubted testimony,’ of this to all who are baptized. What this includes is so pointedly set forth in the Baptism Form when it explains what it means to be baptized in the name of the Father and in the name of the Son. As to the second element, the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit, or the subjective being made partaker, the situation is the same for the covenant-member, and yet it is not the same. It is the same, for even as in the covenant the forgiveness of sins and everlasting righteousness and salvation.