Several months ago I called attention in these columns to a proposed new chapter which the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia wanted to add to the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the three creeds (along with the Larger and the Shorter Catechisms) which Presbyterian churches hold in common. This was to be Chapter XXXIV of the Confession, under the heading “Of the Offer of the Gospel and God’s Grace Therein.” At the time we quoted the entire proposed addition and gave a few general comments by way of initial criticism, promising to write more later. Since that first editorial other things required editorial attention, and so we postponed further comments. Meanwhile, we have received word that the proposed new chapter has been approved and has become part of the PRC’s creed. This simply means that the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia has confessionally separated itself from all other Presbyterians and no longer holds the Westminster Confession of Faith, but its own private creed. This is the more true in the light of the nature of this new chapter, which conflicts with the spirit and letter of the Westminster Confession. The PRC of Australia now has a Pseudo-Westminster Confession.
I am sorry about this. When I first became acquainted some years ago with the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Australia and with the liberalizing trend toward a united church among the mainline denominations down under, I had high hopes that here was a group of churches which was willing to buck the modern trends and was striving to be uncompromisingly Presbyterian. This was one of the reasons, too, why I was deeply disappointed when, shortly before our visit to Australia, they so abruptly and unjustifiably decided not to receive and to confer with us. On our part, we are always willing and eager to have contact and fellowship with those who show themselves to be genuinely and sincerely concerned about being uncompromisingly Reformed or Presbyterian. In such a case there may be differences, but these can then be discussed in an atmosphere of mutual trust. And differences may even persist and be of such a kind that a full sister church relationship cannot properly be established; but even this does not preclude contact and limited fellowship and the further exploring of differences on the basis of a mutual commitment to the Reformed faith. But when a church begins to add to the creeds on its own hook, so to speak, it goes the way of individualism and separatism.
But the situation is even worse. For by this addition to the creed the PRC of Australia has officially and creedally committed itself to an intrinsically non-Presbyterian, Arminian doctrine. As long as this doctrine of the free offer was not made into an official confession of the church, there was at least hope of being Presbyterian. It was at least possible to militate against the doctrine of the free offer within the PRC. Now this is impossible. The doctrine is binding. It is not open to question, not subject to debate and negative discussion. This is sad. It simply means that with respect to the crucial matters involved, matters of fundamental Reformed doctrines, the doctrines of grace, the Five Points of Calvinism, the Presbyterian Reformed Church has chosen to be conservatively evangelical. It has chosen really to join the hordes of evangelical churches which are content to be somewhat conservative rather than liberal, fundamentalist rather than modernist. And if Presbyterian or Reformed churches (and people) deny or lose their distinctive Reformed (Presbyterian) character, they deny or lose their very right of existence. When I read this article on the offer of the gospel, I am inclined to ask, “Is this why the Presbyterian Reformed Church went down the hard road of separate denominational existence? It isn’t worth the struggle and the sacrifice.” And do not forget, by the way, that if you check back into the history of the mainline denominations which have today become completely modernist, you will find that their present-day liberalism had its beginnings in Arminianism.
And now let us consider the new chapter. I do not intend to go into great detail and to consider all the references to Scripture which were added to the chapter. This would probably entail writing a book longer than that of the Rev. Stebbins, whose Christ Freely Offered was the study behind this new chapter. I merely intend to offer some criticism of the chapter itself.
First of all, I have already remarked that the chapter is out of place in the Westminster. If a chapter on the subject of the preaching of the gospel were to be added, it should not have been added at the very end, following the doctrine of the last things. This makes a patchwork out of the Confession. Such an addition does not indicate much respect for the Confession and its careful organization and pattern. Perhaps the Westminster Confession is too silent on the subject of the preaching of the gospel. Our Reformed creeds as a whole have much more to say on the subject. Especially the Canons offer significant instruction on the subject of the preaching of the gospel in all five heads of doctrine. Nevertheless, I would suggest that if a chapter on the preaching of the Word were to be inserted in the Westminster Confession, the logical place would be immediately before Chapter XXVII, on the Sacraments. Then, at least, all the means of grace would be treated together.
In the second place, I characterized this chapter as one of the slickest statements of two-track theology that I have seen in a long time; and I stated that it outdistances the Christian Reformed Three Points and the Murray-Stonehouse presentation. Let me illustrate this contention.
First of all, the chapter is totally lacking in clear definition of what is supposed to be the key concept of the entire chapter: the offer of the gospel. It speaks of God’s “free offer of full salvation to all sinners” (pgph. 1), of “this offer of life and salvation unto sinners in the administration of the covenant of grace” (pgph. 2), of “the free offer of the gospel” and “this most gracious offer” (pgph. 4), and of the church’s warrant “to offer salvation to men” (pgph. 6). And yet nowhere does the chapter hint at a definition of “offer” or make any kind of statement explaining this important concept. Still more, it confuses this general offer of salvation with a particular promise, as though offer and promise are the same and as though both are general. For in paragraph 1 it speaks of “God’s earnest entreaty to be reconciled to Him and His free offer of full salvation to all sinners” and then immediately adds: “whereby He promises that whosoever truly repents of his sin and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ shall not perish but have eternal life.” This plainly confuses the conceptsoffer and promise, while the two are readily distinguishable and differ widely. One of the chief differences is that a promise is strictly and only dependent for its fulfillment on the one who promises, while an offer is in its very nature dependent on the acceptance or rejection of the offered good by those to whom the offer is made. Further, even in the form in which the promise is stated in paragraph 1, that promise is strictly particular. It is not a promise that all sinners shall (or may) not perish but have eternal life, but a promise that “whosoever truly repents of his sin and believes in the Lord Jesus Christ shall not perish but have eternal life.” And note that a statement like this is not conditional; it simply identifies the heirs or recipients of the promise by their spiritual marks: they are those who repent and believe.
This is a fundamental mistake in this chapter. A confessional statement should be clear and well defined, especially in our day. Such clarity is generally characteristic of the Westminster Confession, but this new chapter is pseudo-Westminster even in this regard.
Secondly, the chapter is characterized by an ambivalence and ambiguity throughout which is due to the fact that it jumps back and forth from the Reformed to the Arminian track constantly.
Paragraph 1 begins on the Reformed track. Notice: “It pleased God to commit to the church the preaching of the gospel wherein the whole counsel of God, including the accursed state of man on account of sin, the eternal plan of redemption, the redeeming work of Christ for sinners, and the effectual application by the Holy Spirit of the benefits of His death, is to be preached to all men without distinction, together with the solemn command to repent and believe.” Then we jump to the Arminian track: “God’s earnest entreaty to be reconciled to Him and His free offer of full salvation to all sinners.” And then we jump back once more to the Reformed track when the paragraph makes reference to the particular promise, as noted above. Note also, by the way, that throughout the chapter there is a wavering at crucial points with respect to definite atonement. True, paragraph 2 speaks clear language on this score. It speaks of “all the saving benefits which Christ has purchased for them (the elect) by His death.” And it speaks of the fact that God sent Christ “effectually to redeem all those and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.” But paragraph 1 speaks vaguely of “the redeeming work of Christ for sinners,” leaving those “sinners” unspecified. And paragraph 3 states that “redemption has been purchased certainly for each who will receive it.” The former expression is at best vague, and the latter expression as a specification of the atonement is downright false; it characterizes the heirs of redemption in a manner in which any Arminian would do so. But a Reformed confession, especially when it is going to set forth an allegedly Reformed doctrine of the free offer, a Westminster doctrine, ought to be at pains to speak very specific language which leaves not a hair’s breadth of an opening for the Arminian doctrine of general atonement. But in this regard again, we have two-track, pseudo-Westminster theology.
Paragraph 2 is a classic case of two-track theology. For the most part it speaks language to which any Reformed man will say “Amen.” It speaks thoroughly Reformed language about the gathering of the elect, about the conferring of the benefits of salvation upon them, and about definite atonement. But the paragraph does not begin on this Reformed track. It begins on the Arminian track with the following language: “The Holy Spirit employs this offer of life and salvation unto sinners. . . .”
In paragraph 3 the two-track theology is again evident. This paragraph begins by speaking the same Reformed language as does Canons III, IV/A/8: “Yet as many as are called by the gospel are unfeignedly called. . . .” But then it again switches to the Arminian track. It does so, first, by giving as a reason the following: “for redemption has been purchased certainly for each who will receive it,” — a statement to which we have already called attention. And then it proceeds to corrupt in typical Arminian fashion the teaching of Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11, as follows: “and not only that but God has declared most sincerely and truly by an oath in His Word that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather it is His nature to delight that those who are called should come to Him in repentance and faith.” The passages teach a particular gospel, as Calvin already made plain. God does not desire the death of the wicked who turns. He delights in the life of the wicked inasmuch as He delights in their repentance. But this paragraph teaches that God delights in the life and the repentance of all who are called.
In paragraph 4 the cat finally comes out of the bag. Behind all this two-track theology is a form of common grace. “Therefore” — and notice that this “therefore” refers to what has just been said concerning God’s having “no pleasure in the death of the wicked but rather it is His nature to delight that those who are called should come to Him in repentance and faith” — “Therefore the free offer of the gospel also serves to manifest the goodness of God, particularly His kindness and longsuffering in extending to sinners a season of grace.” In vain does this paragraph try to get back on the Reformed track by speaking of God’s holiness and righteousness and of the wickedness of the unbeliever.
The result of all this is that in paragraph 6 this new chapter speaks of the church’s commission as its “warrant to offer salvation to men.” Again it speaks, without limitation, of God’s having “no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” At the same time, the paragraph strives to leave the impression of being Reformed by speaking of the fact that “It is to the praise of the glory of God’s grace or justice that His word shall accomplish that which He pleases.”
The whole effect of a chapter like this is confused and confusing. The final result is that the church which follows its teachings will run on the Arminian track, not the Reformed track. For to run on both tracks is impossible. And the result, therefore, will be that the pure preaching of the gospel will be corrupted.
This is the first time, to my knowledge, that a Reformed or Presbyterian denomination has officially elevated the error of the free offer to confessional status and has actually inserted it in a creed. How sad!
An Endorsement and a Review
We do not often carry book reviews in the editorial department. But the review below, by Rev. C. Hanko, is worthy of special attention because, in my opinion, the book reviewed is worthy of special attention.
Having read the book myself, both in Dutch and in English, I want to endorse Rev. Hanko’s review and thereby endorse the novel.
This was a very popular story in the Netherlands, though the story came from an American, a transplanted Hollander. The Dutch edition went through eleven printings. This is understandable: the story is about mystical Zeelanders and would be of interest to Dutch readers.
But there is no reason why interest in the book should be limited to Dutchmen. The story itself is very interesting and has much human appeal. And the style is interesting. Nor, by the way, is it spoiled at all by the excellent translation. When one reads the book in English, there are very few points at which one would even guess that it is a translation.
We live in a day when there is much literary trash on the market, stuff that we do not care to have in our homes. Here is a good Christian story. You need not hesitate to have your teenagers read it. They should find the story captivating. I hope that Paideia Press will find a good market for the story and that they will find it possible to furnish more such books.
Buy the book, and see for yourself
HE GATHERS THE LAMBS, Cornelius Lambregtse (translated by Harry der Nederlanden); Paideia Press, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada; 290 pp., $7.95 (cloth). (Reviewed by Rev. C. Hanko)
This is a recent translation of a book that appeared in the Dutch under the title In Zijn Arm De Lammeren. Those who have read the book in the Dutch will also enjoy the English translation. Those who are interested in the background of our forefathers in the Netherlands will also find a keen delight in the descriptions of that part of the Netherlands that belongs to the province of Zeeland. One enjoys the simple, hand-to-mouth existence of the pious Weststrate family, can appreciate their sincere godly walk and take interest in their peculiar religious customs and, practices. It is a pleasure to see the main character, Fransje, develop into a four year old, as the author tells us of his many questions and cares, and describes the manner in which God is preparing him for an early departure from this world to be gathered into the arms of the Good Shepherd. Especially those who have experienced the loss of a child will realize that here a father is giving expression to his own bitter fears and sorrows at the loss of a small child, for, as the author tells us in the dedication, this book is written, “In precious memory of my only son Calvin John who at the age of three years and seven months had finished his earthly sojourn and on the day of his departure said: ‘I am going home to Jesus. Don’t cry, Daddy.’ ”
Although the religious background of the Weststrate family is different from that of most of us who are of Dutch parentage, we can appreciate the sincere, spiritual devotion of this family and its friends. The book is edifying, as well as enjoyable reading. We are thankful for the English translation and urge those interested to read it.