The Reformed theology of God’s everlasting covenant of grace must be in harmony with the doctrines of grace set forth in the Canons of Dordt. That is the premise of these editorials. That the covenant and salvation are inseparable is admitted even by those who teach that the covenant is a conditional relationship with every baptized child, for they insist that God promises salvation to each of these children (conditionally). We have shown that God established His covenant with Christ and those chosen eternally in Him. This is the teaching of both Scripture and the Canons. Since the covenant is a relationship of love, God saves His elect people and in this way brings them infallibly into His covenant life of fellowship. The covenant itself then must not be out of harmony with the doctrines of saving grace.
This is true also of the doctrine of predestination, double predestination. The doctrine of the covenant governed by election maintains that Christ is both the Mediator and the Head of the covenant, which both Scripture and the Canons teach. But what about the other side of predestination—reprobation? The doctrine of the covenant must also harmonize with reprobation. To this we turn.
Reprobation in the Canons
The Canons refer to reprobation in Head I, Articles 6, 15, 18, and Rejection of Errors 8. A brief overview of this doctrine in the Canons follows.
Article 6 teaches first that God has one decree of predestination with two sides—election and reprobation. This decree is eternal, and this eternal decree determines what happens in time. According to that eternal decree, in time God “graciously softens the hearts of the elect…and inclines them to believe.” Also according to that decree, God “leaves the non-elect…to their own wickedness and obduracy.”
Article 15 contains the Canon’s main teaching on reprobation, and therefore we quote it.
What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of sacred Scripture that not all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal election of God; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have wilfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but leaving them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof.
To understand the teaching of the Canons, it is important to bear in mind what the Arminians were teaching. The Arminians taught a conditional predestination. According to them, election is conditional, based on God foreseeing who would believe and obey. Reprobation likewise is conditional, based on God foreseeing who will not believe and obey. There is no eternal, absolute decree of God that determines who are elect and will go to heaven, and who are reprobate and will eternally be damned.
The Canons reject this theology of a conditional predestination. Election is not based on man fulfilling the condition of faith and obedience. Likewise, reprobation is not conditional.
Accordingly, Article 15 teaches concerning reprobation that God decreed three things. God decreed, first, to leave the reprobate in their misery of sin. Second, God decreed not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion. Third, God eternally decreed to condemn the reprobate and punish them forever.
Article 15 adds that this decree is righteous and unchangeable. It is perfectly righteous in the way in which God deals with the reprobate, condemning them for their sins. That it is unchangeable is significant—none are added to the reprobate nor taken away in time. In addition, this decree is according to God’s good pleasure. This is what God determined is good. Finally, that decree of God is irreprehensible, which is to say, God is not to be blamed. The natural reaction of man is to find fault with God for this decree. But the Canons will have none of that. God is righteous and good, and He is sovereign.
At this point it is good to return to Article 6, which reminds us that this decree of God is a “profound…discrimination between men equally involved in ruin.” Predestination is profound. It is deep. It is certainly true that all God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:9), and all His “ways past finding out” (Rom. 11:33). But we must not discuss this decree without contemplating that it is profound, deep, and far beyond our comprehension. God, in His mind, eternally predestined the eternal destiny of all men and angels, as well as the path to their eternal destiny. Stop and consider what this means. And then think on reprobation. Reprobation is not something to be discussed casually. It is God’s eternal plan that some people, even the majority of those whom He creates, are predestined for hell.
Profound. Sobering. Words cannot capture the depth. But at the least, let us acknowledge that we ought never to talk about reprobation in a casual manner. And this editorial does not. To paraphrase a Protestant Reformed minister’s sermon from the 1950s, “I can talk about reprobation and tell you what it is. But when I think that one of my grandchildren might be reprobate, I tremble.”
The Covenant and reprobation
But what does reprobation have to do with God’s everlasting covenant of grace? It brings us to the reality that God determined that non-elect children would be born in covenant families.
Do you see the issue? God establishes His covenant with Christ and those who are chosen in Christ. Yet God promises Abraham that He will establish His covenant with Abraham’s seed in their generations, to be a God unto Abraham and to his seed after him (Gen. 17:7). The covenant is established in the line of continued generations. We rightly confess that God establishes His covenant with believers and their children. Even though we have seen that God establishes His covenant with the elect children of believers, the question still arises, what must be said of the reprobate children of believers?
Specifically, does God establish His covenant with these non-elect children of believers? Does God promise to be their God? Does God promise that they are His people? Does God promise forgiveness and eternal life to these children?
Some in the Reformed camp answer all those questions with a resounding, Yes! This is the teaching of a covenant theology that maintains that all the children of believers are equally covenant children. God gives the same promises to every child at baptism.
To put it differently, this is the teaching of any covenant theology that refuses to allow the covenant to be determined by election. It is quite natural, then, that such a theology will not find a place for reprobation in the doctrine of the covenant.
This theology of the covenant is the teaching of Klaas Schilder. In his work criticizing the Declaration of Principles adopted by the Protestant Reformed Churches, Schilder makes it plain that the promise at baptism is conditional: “Thus, within the circle of God’s speaking, the promised goods are bound to the condition of accepting those goods.”1 Then he insists that this promise is to every baptized child, on the condition of faith. He maintains that in baptism, the promise is not “a general message” proclaimed “over our heads…. No, [God] comes down from the pulpit, stands right next to us and says, ‘Mary, name and surname,’ ‘Cornelius, so and so, I baptize you.’”2 Thus, every baptized child receives the conditional promise. As Schilder interprets the Reformed Baptism Form, the promise is that the “Father will provide you all good…” and the “Spirit will impart to you all that we have in Christ,” provided the child believes.3
Accordingly, Schilder wrote that “the promise of the gospel is not an oath that God will lead all the elect to a destination (although this is all true) but an oath to a specific person, that he wants to lead this specific person, called by name, to the final salvation.”4
It is astounding, in light of God’s eternal decree of reprobation, to maintain that God promises these blessings of salvation to every baptized child, also the non-elect child. That God “wants to lead this specific person, called by name, to the final salvation” is contrary to the good pleasure of God, according to which He decreed to reprobate some of these baptized children.
The promoters of the Federal Vision go a step beyond Schilder. Perhaps recognizing that it is foolish to speak of God making such promises to non-elect baptized children, these theologians teach that every baptized child is elect. Then they go even farther, insisting that every baptized child is engrafted into Christ, which even grants justification to that child! Their explanation of election is very different from the Canons, obviously. Their “election” is a conditional election, one that the baptized child loses when he fails to fill the condition of faith and obedience. We will not take the time to demonstrate their teaching with quotations but encourage all to read Prof. D. Engelsma’s Gospel Truth of Justification on this point.5
Conditional covenant theology contradicts the Canons’ teaching on reprobation. God decreed to leave the reprobate in their misery of sin, not to give them saving faith and the grace of conversion, and to condemn the reprobate and punish them forever. That is God’s eternal good pleasure. It is simply wrong to teach that, in time, God promises to these same individuals forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It cannot be maintained that God promised Esau, “I am your God, you are my child, I claim you as my own and promise you eternal life…if you believe.”
Other questions must be faced in regard to the covenant and reprobation, the chief one being: Why does God determine that reprobate children will be born and grow up in covenant families?
More on reprobation and the covenant next time.
1 Jelle Faber, Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger in American Secession Theologians on Covenant and Baptism (Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance Publishers, 1996). 133. Emphasis in the original.
2 Schilder, Extra-Scriptural Binding, 142.
3 Schilder, 145. Emphasis in the original.
4 Schilder, 146. Emphasis in the original.
5 Published by the RFPA in 2017 (rfpa.org.) See especially pp. 464–74.