In this article we continue the analysis of sixteen questions that Classis Southwest of the United Reformed Churches (URC) asked two representatives, Dr. J. Van Vliet and Dr. G. Visser, of the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC), professors at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches. In the May 1 issue of theStandard Bearer this column briefly examined the first eight questions as reported in the March 10, 2010 issue of Christian Renewal. The March 24, 2010 issue of Christian Renewal reported the last eight questions.
It became obvious in those first eight questions that Classis Southwest of the URC is concerned about the covenant theology of the CanRC in light of the plans for the union of these two denominations that are rolling ahead like a juggernaut and in light of the recent and well-known development in Reformed and Presbyterian churches of the federal vision heresy.
The men promoting the federal vision deny justification by faith alone. This has become the focus of many current opponents of the federal vision. The URC questioners show this concern when they ask:
10. How exactly do ministers in the CanRC relate the confessional doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide [by grace alone and by faith alone—NJL] to their covenant doctrine?
15. Is the active obedience of Christ believed and preached by ministers in the CanRC? How influential has the rejection of the active obedience of Christ been in the CanRC?
To this we have no objections because that doctrine, recovered by the Reformation of the fifteenth century, is the article of the standing or falling church. That doctrine is at the heart of the peace, joy, and gratitude of the believer.
What many opponents seemingly ignore is that the federal vision denies justification by faith alone on the basis of a covenant view that they openly acknowledge is a development of the covenant doctrine of Dr. Klaas Schilder, the father of CanRC covenant theology. This covenant doctrine, which was rejected by the Protestant Reformed Churches in a fierce life and death struggle in the early 1950s, teaches that the covenant of God is established with every baptized child head for head and that every child receives the promise of the covenant. According to the two representatives of CanRC:
We (and, we believe, Schilder) would maintain that all children of believers, head for head, are truly in the covenant. They all receive the same promises. If they later err in unbelief, that is not because God did not really offer them life and salvation….
All are in the covenant, head for head; all receive the same promises; but not all respond in faith and obedience.
God does not establish His covenant only with the elect in Christ and give only to them the covenant promise, including faith. According to the CanRC and Schilder, God makes His covenant with every baptized child. The promise of the covenant that God gives to every baptized child does not include the gift of faith. Faith is the condition of the covenant that every baptized child must fulfill.
The federal vision has developed the implications of that covenant doctrine—a conditional covenant—and teaches that covenant salvation is fully conditional, including conditional justification by faith and good works.
This is a matter of some concern for Classis Southwest of the URC, and Classis Southwest demonstrates in its questioning of the CanRC that it is not ignorant of the fact that the federal vision’s denial of justification by faith alone is based on a particular covenant doctrine.
In the face of questions about the federal vision, the CanRC representatives plainly admit that they are not fighting the federal vision. They are sympathetic with some of their emphases.
Astoundingly, the interview continued.
In the light of the last eight questions it becomes apparent why the interview continued. The question is now: What is all the fuss about in Classis Southwest?
The representatives of the CanRC seem to have the same question. Why all this questioning about our covenant view?
This comes out in their answers to several questions by Classis Southwest on other seemingly unrelated matters.
Classis Southwest predictably asks about common grace: “To what degree did Schilder reject ‘common grace’ and how is this doctrine understood by ministers in the CanRC?”
Common grace is “grace” given by God to the reprobate ungodly that restrains sin in their hearts by the operation of the Holy Spirit so that they are not totally depraved but able to do works that are truly pleasing to God. It is “grace” given to the reprobate ungodly that is manifested in the “grace” in rain and sunshine on their fields. Common grace is a general, non-saving “grace” given to all men head for head.
Schilder, as is well-known, rejected the term common grace. It is unclear whether this was merely because Abraham Kuyper invented it (Schilder was opposed to all things Kuyperian), or because he genuinely disagreed. The URC, being the willing heirs of the doctrinal decisions of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) on common grace, are still very much ardent proponents of common grace. Classis Southwest of the URC evidently wants to be sure that their inevitable ecclesiastical companion “understands” this doctrine and does not have plans to be preaching against that sacred cow.
The CanRC responded: “The exact reason for this question is really not very clear to us,” and the doctrine of common grace for us is “largely a matter of terms.” Clearly, in the CanRC this doctrine is not heartily rejected as contrary to the Reformed creeds and Scripture. They evidently will not make an issue out of this doctrine. It is “largely a matter of terms.”
Classis Southwest presses the matter and asks about the well-meant gospel offer, an insidious part of the original decision of the CRC with regard to common grace: “How widely, if at all, is the free or well-meant offer of the gospel accepted and practiced in the CanRC?”
The well-meant gospel offer is the false doctrine that teaches that God in the preaching of the gospel sincerely desires—wills—the salvation of all who hear and offers salvation to them on the condition that they repent and believe.
The URC, ardent champions of a non-saving and ineffectual “grace” toward the reprobate ungodly, also champion that “grace” to the reprobate in the well-meant gospel offer.
The representatives of the CanRC answer: “Again, the exact concern of this question is vague to us.”
The URC questioners ask the CanRC professors:
How will CanRC ministers relate to those URCNA ministers and churches who not only hold to and preach the distinction between those internally/externally in the covenant, but for whom it is of the essence of Reformed covenant theology, since these two views [covenant view of CanRC and those who hold to the internal/external distinction—NJL] would seem to be mutually exclusive.
The external and internal distinction is terminology that was used by some covenant theologians to speak of two kinds of covenant members. The problem with the distinction is that it makes all baptized children covenant members in some respect. They are all “in the covenant,” albeit either externally in the covenant or internally in the covenant.
That this is how some covenant theologians used the distinction, the late CanRC professor Jelle Faber relates in his survey of some covenant theologians.¹ One of those covenant theologians was William Heyns, whose covenant doctrine was and still is influential. Heyns accepted a form of the distinction between internal/external membership in the covenant. Heyns also spoke of “covenant grace.” This covenant grace was a general grace that was given to every baptized child that actually changed every baptized child’s spiritual condition subjectively. But it was “a grace which does not insure salvation and yet takes from the covenant member all excuse.”²
Some grace! Cannot save you, but renders you without excuse.
Some may have used the distinction with good intention, but others, like Heyns, used this distinction, or some form of it, in order to make membership in the covenant wider than God’s decree of election and to deny Christ’s headship of the covenant. It is for this reason that the distinction is a bad one. Membership in the covenant is never wider than God’s eternal decree of election. Rather, the proper distinction in the covenant, a biblical one according to Romans 9:6, is between those in the covenant—”Israel” and Jacob—and those in the sphere of the covenant—”of Israel” and Esau.
The covenant views of the CanRC and those who use the internal/external distinction only “seem to be mutually exclusive.” They are not. The issue between the CanRC and the URC is not the internal/external distinction. It is only an apparent difference.
The internal/external distinction can be made to bear all the freight that CanRC covenant theology could put into it. The representatives of the CanRC say so:
It is theoretically possible that some ministers preach an internal/external distinction within the covenant, and that this would be tolerated within the Canadian Reformed federation.
Theoretically this distinction would be tolerated, as long as it was understood to mean that membership in the covenant is wider than election and that all covenant members receive the promise.
CanRC would not tolerate a use of the internal/external distinction that defined it sharply in accordance with God’s decree of predestination. Internally in the covenant means union with Christ, the head of the covenant, and the reception of the unconditional promise of the covenant, including faith. Those in the covenant—internally—are the elect Jacobs of the covenant. Externally in the covenant means that some are only in the sphere of the covenant. They are not members of the covenant, are not sanctified in Christ, and have no promise. They are the reprobate Esaus of the covenant.
But having parried the thrust of these questions, now a riposte!
In elaborating on their response to the question of the well-meant gospel offer, the CanRC professors ask their URC questioners: “How well-meant is the gospel offer to someone who is said to be in the covenant only externally?”
Classis Southwest of the URC—concerned Reformed men, worried perhaps about the federal vision and the roots of that heresy in the covenant doctrine of Dr. K. Schilder and proponents of common grace and the well-meant gospel offer—an interesting question for you: How well-meant is the gospel offer to someone who is said to be in the covenant only externally?
That question is interesting because the CanRC theologians answer the thinly veiled suspicions about their covenant view apparent in the questions of Classis Southwest by applying—rightly—the URC’s treasured doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer to the covenant.
If God sincerely desires the salvation of all who hear the gospel—elect and reprobate—and offers that salvation
to them on the condition of their faith and repentance,
then that must also be true in the covenant. In the covenant, salvation must be offered to all the baptized children conditioned upon faith and repentance.
To all of them.
Head for head, elect and reprobate.
God desires it, clean contrary to His decree of predestination.
Conditioned on faith.
After all, how well-meant is the gospel offer for someone who is said to be in the covenant only externally? Either Classis Southwest
of the URC must mean something different by the internal/
external distinction than they imply and how the distinction has been used by theologians in its history, or by that distinction, which they consider “the essence of Reformed covenant theology,” they mean basically the same as what William Heyns and others like him taught many years ago in the CRC about the covenant. All those baptized
in the covenant are offered the promise—elect and reprobate.
Are not those two covenant views essentially the same? The one influenced by Klaas Schilder; the other incorporating
the error of the well-meant gospel offer. All head for head receive the same promise. All is conditioned on the baptized child’s act of faith. Not all respond in faith and obedience. That is the wrong view of the covenant. That is a terrifying view of the covenant. That is an Arminian view of the covenant. But that is essentially the same view of the covenant. It is a conditional covenant not governed by election.
The CanRC professors before the URC Classis Southwest were saying nothing different than a former professor of their denomination, Jelle Faber, said in a comment about Herman Hoeksema’s well-known and vigorous opposition to Heyns’ view of the covenant:
Hoeksema stated that the covenant conception of Heyns “has for many years been imbibed by many who now serve as ministers in the Christian Reformed denomination.” He regarded it [the covenant conception of Heyns—NJL] as one of the main causes for the adoption by Synod 1924 of the doctrine of a general offer of grace on God’s part in the preaching of the gospel.³
If you hold to the well-meant gospel offer, then you will have Heyns’ view of the covenant. If you have Heyns, then you will eventually have Schilder. If you have Schilder, then you will have the federal vision. Principles work through, slowly sometimes, but inextricably.
Faber himself openly regards the covenant theology of those influenced by Heyns and others like him to be essentially one with the covenant theology of the CanRC: “The kinship of the fifth dogmatician of Kampen [Schilder—NJL] with the American Secession theologians, also with Heyns, came out.”4
What is the fuss all about?
The CanRC professors having used the stick, now offer the carrot—well-meant no doubt—by quoting Jelle Faber:
‘God’s catholic church is being gathered, not in the unity of a perfect theology—however eagerly we should endeavor to obtain it—but in the unity of true faith, faith in the triune God of the covenant, the God of our baptism.’ It is in this spirit that we offer to you our answers to your questions.
The professors know the context of that quote. No doubt many of the URC questioners know the context of that quote. It comes from Jelle Faber’s plea for the union of the CanRC and the then Independent Christian Reformed Churches (now URC) on the basis of the essential
oneness of their covenant view with those of the CanRC and Klaas Schilder:
At the end of this twentieth century the confessional unity of Reformed confessors ought to find an ecclesiastical
manifestation according to the demand of God and the prayer of Christ.5
Faber saw what evidently Classis Southwest of the URC is either unable or unwilling to see: we agree in the essentials, also the essentials of the doctrine of the covenant.
You have a common, general, ineffectual “grace” in common grace, the well-meant gospel offer, and the covenant. Your heritage is the covenant theology of William Heyns and others like him. We will not bother you about those things.
We have a general, ineffectual “grace” to every baptized child in a general covenant promise. Our heritage is the covenant theology of Klaas Schilder, who stood in the same line as Heyns and others like him. Do not bother us about these things.
“It is,” after all, “largely a matter of terms.”
1 Jelle Faber and Klaas Schilder, American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism & Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger (Neerlandia, Alberta: Inheritance Publications 1996), 29—35.
2 Ibid., 40.
3 Ibid., 44.
4 Ibid., 52.
5 Ibid., 53; emphasis is Faber’s.