In the preceding issue of the Standard Bearer, I began the translation of a lengthy article in the Dutch religious newspaper, Refermatorisch Dagblad, featuring the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRC). The article appeared in the August 12, 1994 edition. Written by the paper’s correspondent, K. vander Zwaag, the article was based on interviews that he had conducted earlier in the year with Rev. Richard G. Moore, pastor of the Hull PRC in Hull, Iowa, and with the editor of the SB.
The first part of the article, which appeared in translation in the November 15, 1994 issue of theSB, dealt with the history of the PRC and with the defense by the PRC of the truth of particular grace in the preaching of the gospel. The second part of the article treats of the PRC’s distinctive doctrines of the covenant, marriage, and the sovereignty of God.
What follows is my translation of the concluding section of the article in Reformatorisch Dagbladon the PRC without comment.
Instruction in Faith
To the question, how members of the PRC come to faith, Prof. Engelsma answers that children are instructed in catechism. When it is time to make confession of faith, the young people appear before the consistory to be examined whether they “are sound in doctrine” and whether they can testify to “the living reality of faith.”
Young people must have sorrow over sin, must trust in Jesus Christ, and must have desire to be obedient to the law of God out of love to Him. Making confession (of faith) is more than possessing intellectual knowledge of doctrine. Indeed, you confess that you are a true believer. In that case, you are also obliged to show the death of Jesus Christ (by partaking of the Lord’s Supper). If after some time that does not take place, the consistory asks whether perhaps there are spiritual problems, and it will carefully apply discipline.
The PRC differ with the Netherlands Reformed Congregations (NRC) in America (Amerikaanse Gereformeerde Gemeenten) on the matter of the view that is taken of the children of the congregation.
The NRC teach that all the children who are baptized are unsaved, are unregenerated. -Conversion is possible for them only in the way of an extraordinary experience. Our denomination is strongly opposed to this (conception).
To the question whether this implies that all baptized children in the PRC are regenerated, or are supposed to be regenerated, Engelsma answered:
We view our baptized children from the standpoint of election. Election must determine our attitude, as also our instruction. Many children are regenerated in infancy. How would they be able to sing the psalms, if they are unregenerated, or to worship the LORD? Our children grow up under the Word of God in a spiritual atmosphere. (Conversion) takes place in a gradual process.
According to his own testimony, Engelsma himself never knew an “unspiritual earlier time” (when he was unconverted).
If there had been no work of the Holy Spirit, I would never have come to make confession of faith. I would not have been able to pray (as a child). You do not recognize the work of the Holy Spirit by a special feeling. I fear that the demand for that extraordinary feeling, that extraordinary mystical experience, causes problems for people, because they do not have that experience.
According to Prof. Engelsma, the PRC depart from the Reformed tradition in only one point, namely, in the belief that remarriage after divorce is condemned.
There is one biblical ground for divorce and that is sexual unfaithfulness. But marriage is a lifelong bond, so that remarriage is the same as adultery, even for the “innocent party.” The lifelong bond which God has established between two persons is unbreakable. Divorce cannot break that bond, but is only the decision to live apart from your marriage companion. Only death dissolves the marriage bond.
Engelsma distinguishes this view from the Roman Catholic conception, which sees marriage as a sacrament rather than as a creation ordinance.
In the Bible, marriage is compared with (the) covenant that is established by God with His church. (The) covenant that is established by God in His sovereign grace can never be broken. Therefore, also marriage can not be broken. That the covenant can be broken is taught in the “liberated” churches and in the Christian Reformed Church.
“We are not Very Popular”
Just as does Engelsma, so also PRC-preacher Rev. R. G. Moore of Hull, Iowa rejects the offer of grace. “Our starting point is this, that the gospel is not offered,” he says.
Christ commands repentance and faith. If there is a general offer, God is dependent upon men, who either accept or do not accept that offer. It is God who hardens or gives life. We strongly emphasize God’s sovereignty and reprobation. We preach the gospel, but we do not know who is elect.
His denomination remains so small because “it is not popular when the sovereignty of God is so sharply preached,” says Rev. Moore. This preacher, who unlike Engelsma is unable to read the Dutch, knows Dr. Steenblok by name and says that he feels kinship with everyone who teaches an “unconditional covenant.”
First there is the law, then the gospel. From the beginning of the spiritual life, it is the sovereign work of God–from the calling by means of the preaching to the working out (of the calling) in which Christ applies His work.
What he has heard of Steenblok has a great deal of similarity to the NRC-congregation in neighboring Rock Valley, according to Moore. But he has serious criticism of this denomination.
The NRC stop with the first part of the Heidelberg Catechism: misery. It is said that one can go further only by a special revelation and experience. The problem is that this quickly leads to Pharisaism. The entrance to the Lord’s Supper is dependent upon mans own work rather than going out from this, that man is nothing with a view to redemption. Indeed, it is the question whether they really see their sins. If they would do that, they would surely embrace grace.
We must stand for certainty, not for doubt. The danger of mysticism is great. .We experience the work of the Spirit, not directly but in the preaching. Of course, grace is only for the elect. In this, I am in agreement with the NRC. But they make grace so narrow that members of the congregation think that they receive it by a special revelation.
Rev. Moore was asked whether every member of the congregation in the PRC is considered as an elect. However, Rev. Moore does not want to go this far:
No, there is also a carnal seed. At the same time, on the basis of the covenant we hope for the good regarding the members of our congregations. We do that, therefore, not on the basis of the supposition that they are elect.