The second head of the Canons teaches that Christ’s death on the cross was an effectual redemption of the elect. The Canons rejected the Remonstrants’ (Arminian) teaching that Christ died “for all men and every man.” The Remonstrants also maintained that not all for whom Christ died receive the saving benefits but only those who believe, which is to say, only those who fulfill the condition of faith. Accordingly, they perverted the preaching of the gospel, turning it into a general offer of salvation from God to all who hear the preaching. They insisted that God wills (desires) the salvation of all.
The Canons refute these errors first by insisting that Christ’s death is a satisfaction of God’s justice: Christ paid the penalty for specific sins, namely, the sins of the elect. Second, Christ’s death was substitutionary: He died for and in the place of the elect. The atonement is, therefore, effectual and the benefits of Christ’s death are for the elect, neither intended for nor available for all and every man. That in turn implies that God does not promise salvation (on the condition of faith) to all and every man who hears the gospel.
The Protestant Reformed Churches faced this concretely in 1953 when Rev. Hubert DeWolf, minister in First PRC of Grand Rapids, preached, “God promises every one of you that if you believe, you will be saved.” That is a general and a conditional promise, and the churches condemned this statement as heretical. It is noteworthy that Rev. DeWolf preached this at the time when the churches were debating the doctrine of the covenant, including whether or not the promise of the covenant is conditional.
We have previously demonstrated how significant Head 2 is in proving that the covenant is with the elect alone. For in this head the Canons teach that “Christ by the blood of the cross…confirmed the new covenant” (Art. 8). And because Christ’s blood redeemed only those eternally chosen to salvation, the covenant that Christ confirmed is only with the elect.
Other teachings of Head 2 are significant for the doctrine of the covenant. We return to its treatment of the promise of the gospel.
Head 2 insists that the benefits of the atonement are only for the elect. Only the elect will ever believe, for “election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith.as the fruit and effect of election” (I, 9). In harmony with this theology, Reformed preaching proclaims the commands: “Repent! Believe in Jesus Christ!” Such preaching also proclaims the particular, unconditional promise, that is, God’s promise to every believer: “Eternal life is yours” (II, 5).
This gospel is proclaimed not only in the mission setting, but in the established congregation and to covenant people. The command’s emphasis is not a call to repentance and faith for the first time, as if most of the congregation are impenitent unbelievers. Almost certainly some in the congregation are unbelievers, and the commands do address them. In addition, every believing member of the congregation is a sinner in need of daily repentance. Every believer continually needs the admonition to embrace the truth, take hold of Christ and His benefits by faith. Week after week they need to hear the blessed promise grounded in the cross declared to them.
If then it is so (as the previous editorial demonstrated) that the gospel promise is made to the elect only, how does this apply to the promise in the covenant? May it be said to every child of believers, “God wants to save you and He promises you eternal life”?
The issue is inseparably connected with baptism. A conditional covenant theology maintains that God speaks the promise to every baptized child. Proponents of a conditional covenant insist that in baptism God—not merely the minister but God Himself—calls each child by name and speaks the promise of salvation to each child. In this, they maintain, the blessings of salvation are given to each of these children objectively. Salvation is there for the taking. If the child believes, he will possess and enjoy those blessings subjectively, that is, personally. In effect, their teaching is that a general, conditional promise is made to every child at baptism.
But can that be? Can the promise of eternal life in the preaching be particular (for the elect only) and unconditional (with no dependence on man), but the promise in baptism be general (for all) and conditional (dependent on the child’s faith)?
No, it cannot be. The proof is simple: the sacraments only confirm the preaching of the gospel. This is the explicit teaching of the other Reformed confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism makes this clear in Lord’s Day 25 stating that “the Holy Ghost…works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments” (Q&A 65).
The Belgic Confession similarly connects baptism and the preaching in Article 33:
We believe, that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities, hath ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith, which He hath joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses both that which He signifies to us by His Word and that which He works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us.
The sacrament of baptism cannot promise something that the preaching does not. Preaching makes the gospel promise (good news, salvation) only to believers, though many others do hear the preaching. Likewise, baptism makes the promise only to believers, not to every baptized child.
The Catechism explains further in A. 66:
The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that He grants us freely the remission of sin and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross. [Emphasis added.]
Q. 67. Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
A. Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross. [Emphasis added.]
Notice that last part of A. 67—“the one sacrifice of Christ which He offered for us on the cross.” That “one sacrifice of Christ” accomplished the redemption of the elect alone, and the sacraments, directing our faith to the cross, do not promise salvation to all who are baptized or who partake of the Lord’s Supper.
The Belgic Confession explicitly teaches in Article 35 that only believers receive the blessing promised.
Further, though the sacraments are connected with the thing signified, nevertheless both are not received by all men: the ungodly indeed receives the sacrament to his condemnation, but he doth not receive the truth of the sacrament—as Judas, and Simon the sorcerer both indeed received the sacrament, but not Christ who was signified by it, of whom believers only are made partakers. [Emphasis added.]
Here the Confession flatly rejects the conditional covenant theology of the Federal Vision, which teaches not only that the promises of the covenant are to every baptized child, but also that each child is united to Christ by the sacrament. Against that the Confession insists, “believers only are made partakers” of Christ. Believers only have the spiritual reality that is signified in the sacraments, whether baptism or the Lord’s Supper.
But take notice of the Catechism’s language when describing the sacraments in Q. 66, that they are not only “signs” but also “seals.” A seal is a guarantee of authenticity. Baptism “seals to us the promise of the gospel.” This is God’s seal. Those who are sealed by the sacrament have God’s guarantee that His promise to them is true, is sure, and cannot fail. A promise that cannot fail will not depend on the recipient to fulfill a condition, particularly, a spiritually dead sinner. God’s promises never fail. God promises, and He keeps the promise unfailingly.
In order to get around this significance of an unfailing promise sealed in baptism, defenders of a conditional covenant must change the promise. They change God’s word at baptism to a promise and a demand, where a threat accompanies the demand. Thus does Klaas Schilder describe God’s word to each baptized child:
With the promise comes as extra the prospect of a reward, and with the demand comes as extra the threat of punishment; do this and you shall live; don’t do it and the wrath of the Lord will be terrible.1
Such a presentation of “the promise” is foreign to the Bible and the Confessions. The promise of God to His covenant people is salvation in Christ. This must be demonstrated, which we intend to do.
But there is something deeper here. At issue is the very form of the covenant. Schilder, and all conditional covenant theologians, view the covenant as an agreement between God and man, and therefore, conditional. The Canons have something to say about that as well.
1 “The Main Points of the Doctrine of the Covenant,” p. 16 (a speech given by Schilder in 1944; translated in 1992 by T. vanLaar.) See also Schilder, Extra-Scriptural Binding—A New Danger, (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1996), 134–50.