*The readers will kindly understand that this editorial was written and set up, before I heard of brother Schilder’s passing. H.H.
We will now turn to our Reformed Confessions, in order to examine them with a view to the question whether they, perhaps, make the distinction between predictions and promises such as Dr. Schilder makes, and whether promises, in distinction from predictions, are indeed for N.N., for Tom, Dick, and Harry.
I am afraid that many of the Reformed people, and this certainly includes also the Liberated, are not very well acquainted with their own Confessions, except, perhaps, the Heidelberg Catechism. And even the leaders of the Liberated, with their contention that the promise is for all the children that are born under the dispensation of the covenant and that it is conditional, do not preferably quote the Confessions in support of their view. In all his criticism on the Declaration of Principles Dr. Schilder did not once refer to the Confessions. He did indeed allege that the Declaration of Principles represented the supralapsarian view of the counsel of God, although the basic contention of that Declaration, namely, that the promise of God is unconditional and for the elect only, has nothing whatever to do with the question of supra and infra, but is deduced directly from the infralapsarian Confessions. He also criticized the contention of the Declaration that election is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation, instead of which he suggested that election is not the cause or fountain, but the ground of our salvation. In this he made an error, for the Confessions literally speak of cause and fountain. But for the rest, I do not remember that in all his criticism Dr. Schilder referred to the Confessions whatsoever. And this, of course, is at the same time a fundamental weakness of his criticism: for the Declaration means to be nothing but an expression of the truth as it is found in our Reformed symbols.
But this in parentheses.
We will now turn to the Confessions themselves, to discover whether they really support the view of a conditional promise for all the children that are born in the dispensation of the covenant.
I will begin with the well-known and often quoted part of the Canons of Dordrecht that speaks of the promise of everlasting life. I refer to Canons II, 5, a part of the Confessions to which also Dr. Schilder preferably refers as defining the real promise of the gospel.
We read there: “Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”
It is striking indeed that also the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches, 1924, appealed to this same part of the Confessions to maintain their “puntje van hfet eerste punt” (the heart of the first point), that, namely, the preaching of the gospel is grace for all that hear. Not being able to find any Kuyperian common grace in the Confessions, they made the error of presenting the gospel as a well-meaning offer of grace and salvation, well-meaning on the part of God, to all the hearers. In other words, by the very force of circumstances they were deflected into Arminian waters.
But how about this part of the Confessions? Does it indeed teach the distinction between predictions and promises, so that there are no predictions for N.N., for Tom, Dick, and Harry, but there are promises for them? In other words, is the promise of the gospel here presented as for all, and as a conditional promise?
To be sure, this article does sustain the contention of Schilder that there are no predictions for N.N. And we may just as well state at once that such a doctrine is not and could not possibly be found in any of our Confessions, no more than it is ever met with in Holy Writ. The article certainly does not state that N.N. shall have eternal life, or that N.N. shall perish.
However, note too that there nevertheless is in this article a prediction in the form of a promise, or, if you wish, a promise in the form of a prediction. That prediction and that promise is contained in the clause, “whosoever . . . shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is a promise, for it is stated in the very same article that this is the promise of the gospel. But at the same time it is a prediction, as the future form of the verb plainly indicates. One can also say on the basis of Scripture that one that believes in Christ hath eternal life; and in that case it is a statement of a present fact. But here the promise of the gospel is given in the form of a prediction, of a good that is to be attained and expected in the future. We may certainly put this promise in this form: “Whosoever . . . shall not go to he’ll, but shall go to heaven.”
But note now, in the second place, that this promise in the form of a prediction is not given as a conditional promise to N.N. God does not issue checks on which it is written: “I, Jehovah God, promise you, Tom, Dick, and Harry, eternal life,” a promise that for its realization depends on the willingness of him who received it to go to the bank and cash the check. The promise is not to N.N., but to the believers. For: “The promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” And this brings us to the question: who are the believers? This question must of course be answered in the light of all our Reformed Confessions. I insist that no one has the right to isolate this part of the Confessions and separate it from the whole. Then indeed you can make the Confessions speak Arminian language. Also the Arminian has no objection to the definition of the promise as contained in Canons II, 5, provided you separate this part from the rest of the Reformed symbols. They also state that he that believeth shall surely be saved. And they even have no objection to maintain that faith is a gift of God, and that it is all of grace. And therefore we must certainly read this part of the Confessions in the light of the rest. I will not take space at this time to quote the Confessions on this score at length. I will only refer to the same chapter of the Canons, Articles 7 and 8. In Article 7 we read: “But as many as truly believe, and are delivered and saved from sin and destruction through the death of Christ, are indebted for this benefit solely to the grace of God, given them in Christ from everlasting, and not to any merit of their own.” And in Article 8: “For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.” Here, then, you have the answer to the question: who are the believers? In one word, they are the elect. Hence, the promise here is not to N.N., it is not for Tom, Dick, and Harry. But it is only for those that are ingrafted into Christ, that embrace all His benefits by a saving faith, the believers. And therefore, the promise according to Canons II, 5, in the light of all the Reformed symbols, is only for the elect.
And just as you cannot possibly make the promise of the gospel according to Canons II, 5 a general promise for all, or at least a promise for all the children that are born under the covenant, so you cannot by any stretch of the imagination make this promise a conditional promise, which after all is the same as a well-meaning offer of salvation, and which, by the way, would place the promise exactly out of reach of every sinner. For no sinner can possibly fulfill any conditions in order to receive or attain to the promise of eternal life. But it is not presented as conditional in this part of the Canons. Even the form of the language is not conditional. The form is rather that of general relative clause: “Whosoever believeth in Christ crucified,” (ut quisquis credit in Christum crucifixum). And quisquis does not introduce a conditional sentence, but a general relative clause. It denotes therefore that there is no exception but that all who are included in those who believe in Christ will surely have eternal life. Besides, let me remind you that faith, in our Confessions, is never presented as a condition, not even unto the full and final realization of the promise. It is always presented as an instrument or means, and that too a God-given instrument, whereby we are ingrafted into Christ and whereby we receive all His benefits of mere grace.
We maintain, therefore, that in Canons II, 5:
1. There is certainly no mention of a prediction to N. N.
2. That is the same article there is mention of a prediction of eternal life, but not to N.N., but to believers.
3. That this prediction is at the same time the promise of the gospel, and that also the promise of the gospel is not to N.N., but to the same believers.
4. That in the light of all the Reformed symbols the believers are the elect, and none other.
5. That the promise to them is not conditional, but is an oath of God according to which He leads the elect infallibly to salvation.
But you say: what about the last part of this same article. This last part reads: “This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”
Does not this last part make the promise of the gospel conditional, conditional, that is, upon faith and repentance? And may we not say that in this sense the promise of the gospel is to N.N.?
My answer is: positively not! Mark you well, this part of the article does not speak of the promise of God to N.N., to Tom, Dick, and Harry. But it speaks of the general preaching of the promise to all nations and to all ‘men promiscuously, that is, without distinction. And according to the article, this preaching must be accomplished by the command to repent and believe. And, mark you well, the scope of this preaching is not determined by man, but by God, Who sends this gospel to whomsoever He wills.
But what is the meaning of this last part?
In answer I will remind you, first of all, of the truth that there is no preaching of the gospel, except as it stands in the service of the efficacious Word of God through Christ. Man cannot preach, unless it pleases God through Christ to speak His Word efficaciously through him. His word is powerless. Only the Word of God is quick and powerful and efficacious. Even though a mere man announces the gospel, and even though that word which he announces is based upon the Holy Scriptures, it will have no effect upon the hearers, either unto hardening or unto salvation.
In the second place, the call to repent and believe must go forth to all men and to all nations promiscuously for the simple reason that the hearers are all moral and rational and responsible creatures. They have not the right to assume and keep on assuming an attitude of unbelief over against the Word of God. All men are obligated to repent.
In the third place, do not forget that only where this announcement of the gospel, together with the command to repent and believe, stands in the service of the efficacious Word of God that announcement can have effect. And the effect is always two-fold: it serves as a savor of death unto death, as well as a savor of life unto life. And thus, by the command to repent and believe, in the service of the efficacious Word of God, the reprobate sinner is hardened, his judgment is aggravated, and God is justified when He judges. On the other hand, through this same preaching of the promise, together with the command to repent and believe, and standing in the service of the efficacious Word of God, the elect are brought to repentance and to a conscious, lively faith in Christ Jesus, and thus they have the right to embrace the promise that whosoever believeth in Christ shall not perish, but have everlasting life.