In the last editorial on the Canons’ explanation of faith in Head IV, we called attention to the fact that faith is an instrument that embraces and appropriates Christ and His benefits. This faith, however, it not a condition that man can or must fulfill in order to be saved. This is evident, first, from the fact that faith flows out of election. Second, faith, even the act of believing, is the work of God in the elect. To call a work of God in His people a condition that they must fulfill is wrong on the face of it. And most important, faith is not a condition unto salvation because it is part of God’s saving work.
We concluded with a quotation from Herman Hoeksema (pastor of First PRC in Grand Rapids and seminary professor) in which he pointed out a better way to express the relation between faith and the blessings of salvation. He wrote:
But let me suggest that instead of the Pelagian term “condition” we use the term “in the way of.”
We are saved in the way of faith, in the way of sanctification, in the way of perseverance unto the end.
This term is capable of maintaining both: the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation and the responsibility of man.1
This quotation is found in an eleven-part series entitled “As to Conditions” written by Herman Hoeksema in 1949 and 1950. It was written in the heat of the controversy over conditions in the Protestant Reformed Churches that had been prompted by the conditional theology of Klaas Schilder. Andrew Petter, a minister in the PRC, was writing a lengthy series of articles defending the legitimacy of “conditions” in the other major Protestant Reformed paper, Concordia. Hoeksema did not intend to answer all that Petter wrote because others (George M. Ophoff and Herman Veldman) were doing that in the pages of the Standard Bearer. Nonetheless, Hoeksema saw the need to set forth some clarity on the question of conditions in the covenant. He focused on the place of faith. All these articles demonstrate, especially from the Reformed confessions, that faith is not a condition.
It was in that context that he asked (in installment 5):
But, you say, how then about the responsibility of man? Do we not need the term condition to denote that man is a responsible creature? Do we not make man “a stock and block” by laying all emphasis on the truth of election and sovereign grace?
Then he followed that with the point about speaking of “in the way of” instead of using the term “condition.” But he promised to return to the matter of man’s activity and his responsibility.
In this editorial we intend to quote at length from this series of HH. I encourage readers to read all eleven articles, which are available online (prca.org). I hope that you do for a couple reasons. First and most important is the spiritual profit. The articles are profitable for one to grow in understanding the confessions’ teaching on faith. Second, one can see how Hoeksema dealt with a fellow minister in the PRC who was writing something with which Hoeksema completely disagreed. There are people who believe that the Standard Bearer is supposed to be a place where writers who disagree with other writers should rip and tear into each other. That, some allege, is the history of the SB. That is false. Reading these articles of Hoeksema will go a long way in showing how members and ministers in the PRC ought to speak to and about each other in their disagreements.
But our interest now is not the tone, but the content of HH’s series.
First, we quote Hoeksema as he responds to Andrew Petter on a particular assertion that Petter made, namely, that Hoeksema had changed his views on faith as a condition. To disprove this, HH quoted from his dogmatics notes in Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) that he had taught, he writes, twenty years before. The section he quotes treats the subject of justification. Let us “listen in” on his instruction.2
To be rejected are the following modes of representation:
1. As if faith is the ground of our justification. There is in faith even considered as a work no merit before God. The ground is only the obedience of Christ.
2. As if faith were a condition on which God justifies us. There are no conditions on our part in the covenant of God. All the benefits of grace are bestowed upon us absolutely unconditionally. Never may the sentence, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved” be presented as condition and promise. Faith itself is an act of God and a benefit of grace bestowed upon us.
3. As if faith were the means on our part whereby we can accept Christ, the hand whereby we can take hold of Him, or the taking hold of Him itself by means of that hand. This presentation is principally Remonstrant.
The correct presentation is the following:
a. Faith is the instrument of God in as far as it is the bond that unites us with Christ. All our righteousness is in Christ Jesus. As long as we are not grafted into Him by a true faith we are of and out of ourselves children of wrath. Through faith, however, God unites us with Christ and declares us free from sin. For that reason the Word of God uses the preposition dia [through] with the genitive of pistis [faith] to express this. And only in this way can we understand that God imputes the faith of Abraham for righteousness.
b. Faith is also instrument on the part of God in as far as He brings us through faith to the consciousness of our justification, and speaks to us of peace in foro conscientae [in the forum of the conscience].
c. And on our part faith becomes means in as far as we through the act of faith accept and appropriate unto ourselves the righteousness of God in Christ. For that reason the Word of God uses in this connection also the preposition ek [out of] with the genitive of Christ.3 5:1: “We therefore being justified out of faith have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I consider this instruction to be very helpful in that it shows clearly the importance of faith and how God uses it. It also teaches the proper place of faith as an activity in the believer. But in none of the ways that faith is used is it correct to speak of faith as a condition.
Later in the series (9), HH returns to the idea of man’s responsibility, and refers to the expression “in the way of.” He writes:4
Does this mean, then, that man in the work of salvation is “a stock and a block’’? By no means. He is and remains a responsible, rational, moral creature. And in the work of salvation God never violates his rational, moral nature. Rather must we say that through the work of grace man becomes responsible in the highest sense of the word. Not, indeed, responsible for what God does, but freely responsible for the new obedience unto which he is called. Just because God works within him to will and to do of His good pleasure, he heeds the admonition to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Phil. 2:12–13. Just because he has the glorious promises of God that He will dwell in them and walk in them and will be their God and they shall be His people, they cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. 2 Cor. 7:1. God regenerates them, and they live. God calls them, and they come. God gives them faith, and they believe. God justifies them, and they are righteous. God sanctifies them, and they walk in a new and holy life. God preserves them, and they persevere even unto the end. And all this work of God is without condition. That is the relation between the work of God and our work, as it is expressed in Art. 12 of Canons III, IV, the end of which we quote once more: “Whereupon the will thus renewed, is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence, becomes itself active. Wherefore also, man is himself rightly said to believe and repent, by virtue of that grace received.” By faith, through faith, and in the way of faith we are saved, but never on condition of faith.
Key to the proper understanding of the relation between God’s activity and the activity of man is that God’s activity is always first and sovereign. Man lives out of what God does in him. And though the Scriptures make it plain that God commands certain activities—Believe! Be ye holy! Love the brethren!—these are never conditions, for God sovereignly works faith, sanctification, and love in the regenerated elect. Rather, these commands are God’s powerful word coming to the regenerated child of God, calling the work of God in that person into activity.
Returning to the point of the current editorial and applying this to the doctrine of the covenant, there is no place for conditions for man to perform in a Reformed theology of the covenant. Is man (also the baptized child) responsible? Absolutely, but not for what only God does, and can do. He is called to live out of God’s work. He is saved in the way of faith. God gives faith, and the child believes.
Next, D.V., we turn to Head V, the perseverance of the saints.
1 “As to Conditions (5),” Standard Bearer, December 15, 1949, (Vol. 26, No. 6), 125.
3 It seems that Hoeksema intended to write here “faith” rather than “Christ,” for he next quotes Romans 5:1 where the construction is the proposition ek [out of] with the genitive of faith.
4 “As to Conditions (9),” Standard Bearer, April 15, 1950, (Vol. 26, No. 14), 316.